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Can We Stop the Rubio-Cruz Mutually Assured Destruction?

Rick Tyler, the now-former Cruz campaign spokesman, is a good guy who, by his own admission, exercised very poor judgment in publicizing what turned out to be a false story about Marco Rubio.

The story, which contorted an incident caught on video, sounded kooky from the start: Rubio, while encountering Ted Cruz’s father and a Cruz staffer reading the Bible in a hotel lobby, purportedly said, “Got a good book there, not many answers in it.” Rubio is, by all accounts, a devout Christian and he has spoken eloquently about his faith during the campaign; if there were a report of his having made a statement so contradictory of his nature, it should have been quadruple-checked before anyone decided to go public with it. And even if verified, it would have been more sensible to think the remark a poor attempt at humor than a reflection of Rubio’s beliefs, so far better to ignore it as one of those dumb things exhausted people say in a tense situation.

But of course, Rubio did not say what Tyler reported; he said the opposite: “All the answers” are in the Bible.

As many have observed, this incident does not occur in a vacuum. I am a Cruz supporter, so it is perhaps no surprise that I think the two others that have gotten attention are much ado about nothing.

First, there was the Ben Carson episode in Iowa: As voters were getting set to caucus in Iowa, the Cruz campaign publicized a CNN report suggesting Dr. Carson was getting out of the race. The story was based on the peculiar decision by Carson to go home to Florida for a few days rather than continue his floundering campaign in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Carson, of course, did not get out of the race, though it was certainly reasonable to deduce (as the CNN correspondents did) that things were heading in that direction. Indeed, other candidates in the race who have announced they were leaving the trail to go home, have soon thereafter suspended their campaigns. In any event, the Cruz camp’s pouncing on the story had no material impact on the Iowa result. Carson’s poor outcome is the predictable effect of his bumbling campaign.

It bears noting, moreover, that Cruz has never said an unkind word about Carson, whom he has consistently treated with great respect. Donald Trump, by contrast, buffoonishly compared Carson to a “child molester” in commenting on what Carson described in his autobiography as the “pathological temper” he had to overcome. What’s more, Trump intimated that Carson lied about a stabbing incident also outlined in the book. Yet, Carson lets the Trump remarks roll off his back while carrying on as if Cruz – not Trump, not CNN, Cruz – just stole his favorite toy. Go figure.

The other brouhaha involves the Cruz campaign’s publication of a Photoshopped picture of Rubio shaking hands with President Obama in order to emphasize Rubio’s alliance with the president on trade promotion authority. This is the sort of caricature that political campaigns and political journals engage in all the time, and Cruz has been on the receiving end of his fair share.

Why a Photoshopped picture is somehow worse than a cartoon would have been is beyond me – but then again, to me, the whole thing seems moronic since (a) there are actual photos of Rubio and Obama shaking hands, so it’s not like a caricature was necessary to make the point; and (b) it’s not much of a point given that handshakes are indicative of civility, not political agreement. (For what it’s worth, I shook hands with President Clinton at a signing ceremony not long before I voted against him in 1996, and I was honored to do so. I shook hands with the radical lawyer Bill Kunstler almost every time I saw him in court. I would shake hands with President Obama if I were to encounter him and he offered me his hand. So what?) Since the kerfuffle is both routine and pointless, the hysterical reaction of the Rubio camp to the faux photo seems just as juvenile as the Cruz camp’s publication of it.

Obviously, it doesn’t matter that I think all this nonsense is, well, nonsense. What’s important is what voters think. Even grossly exaggerated claims can start to stick to a candidate if his opponents repeat them nonstop – especially if the candidate’s backers give his opponents a bit of molehill to turn into a mountain. Trump and Rubio have made a mantra of claims that Cruz can’t be “trusTED,” that he’s running a “dirty tricks” campaign, and that he’ll say anything to win. The theme has gotten some traction in the media, to whom it seems not to matter that Trump can’t keep a story straight on almost anything, and that Rubio has been shamefully disingenuous in first advocating his Gang of 8 immigration proposal and now defending that advocacy.

Under the circumstances, Cruz had to take swift, decisive action after the cockamamie story about Rubio belittling the Bible. And in light of Carson’s indignation over Cruz’s refusal to fire anyone after the CNN story was hyped (the only thing Carson has shown a pulse over in the last several months), Cruz had to hold a significant campaign official accountable. Hence, the cashiering of Rick Tyler.

So Cruz apologized to Rubio and fired Tyler, who also apologized to Rubio. This was a moment for Rubio to show graciousness, especially in light of this controversy’s context – the lessons of the Bible, the candidates’ embellished appeals to evangelicals, Rubio’s moving remarks about Catholicism’s teaching that we all do wrong, all need to love, forgive, and try to do better. A good time to put those words into practice. Alas, the Rubio campaign responded, instead, with snark: sympathizing with Tyler’s having “had the unenviable task of working for a candidate willing to do or say anything to get elected,” and adding that Tyler “did the right thing by apologizing to Marco. It’s high time for Ted Cruz to do the right thing and stop the lies.”

Mind you, Cruz had just apologized publicly to Rubio and had sacked the person responsible for publishing false information.

Well, since mixing scripture and politics is, regrettably, the order of the day, I’ll observe that the speck in Cruz’s eye warranted less of Rubio’s attention than the beam in his own. Rubio has been caught, once again, misrepresenting facts about his Gang of 8 bill. That’s the candidate himself, not a staffer.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent named Chris Crane has complained that Rubio was deaf to law-enforcement concerns in pushing the immigration “reform” bill, even as the senator kowtowed pro-illegal alien activists. In an interview over the weekend with Fox’s Neil Cavuto, Rubio denied Crane’s allegations and then seethed that Crane is “not even an ICE official. He’s the head of a union.”

In point of fact, Crane is an ICE official. He has reportedly been a law-enforcement agent for many years following his service in the Marine Corps. He is the president of the National ICE Council, a 7,600-member component of the largest federal employees’ union (the 300,000-member American Federation of Government Employees) because other ICE agents and personnel chose him to be their spokesman. In an interview with Fox’s Lou Dobbs Monday night, Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), a stalwart opponent of Rubio’s Gang of 8 bill, backed Crane’s allegation that the bill’s sponsors were indifferent to law-enforcement concerns. He credited Crane with being one of the “law enforcement officers … [who] exposed this bill.”

Significantly, Rubio appears not only to have known that Crane is an ICE official but to have relied on that fact. In 2013, while the debate over the immigration bill was raging, a constituent complained that Rubio was not consulting with law-enforcement. The senator countered that he was getting law-enforcement input, citing a lengthy meeting he had recently had with Crane. (See video here, beginning about 1:45 after the start.)

So … in attempting to defend himself, Rubio precisely relied on Crane’s status as an ICE official. Then, when called on ignoring Crane’s pleas on behalf of law enforcement, Rubio sought to discredit Crane by saying he is not an ICE official. Further, to attempt to deflect Cavuto’s question, Rubio attacked the source of the story, Breitbart, maintaining that because the site trades in “conspiracy theories,” Rubio not only ignores its reports but won’t even credential its reporters for his press events. Breitbart has responded by showing that (a) its reporters are routinely credentialed for Rubio events, (b) Rubio has given Breitbart exclusive interviews, and (c) Rubio even writes guest op-eds for Breitbartincluding one as recently as last Wednesday.

Perfect. We’re scheduled to have yet another GOP candidates’ debate on Thursday night in Houston. We can now look forward to another edifying night of Rubio calling Cruz a liar, while Cruz catalogues Rubio’s growing string of misrepresentations whenever the immigration legislation arises. Cruz needs to be making a positive case for conservative approaches to the nation’s daunting challenges, but he will be pushed to defend his integrity. Meanwhile, when not fending off charges of hypocrisy, Rubio will have to continue talking about his awful immigration bill (every second spent on which damages him) – and for relief he can fall back on the pile of GOP establishment endorsements he is collecting even as voters strongly signal their revulsion at the GOP establishment.

Could it tee up any better for Donald Trump -- meaning, for the Democrats?

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are sharp, appealing candidates. Are they wise enough to know that neither can win without the backing of the other’s core supporters, and that destroying those supporters’ preferred candidate is not the way to get it? There are not enough committed conservatives in the country for Cruz to win without broadening his appeal. And Rubio cannot win without conservatives, who like Cruz and who are very suspicious of Rubio. No one expects the two senators to stop competing with each other, but the pair needs to home in on Trump’s progressive, incoherent record. They also need to project the uplifting aspects of their candidacies. If, instead, the fratricide continues, some of their disaffected supporters will opt out of the process entirely while others gravitate to Trump, who will waltz to the nomination. And then the Democrats will waltz to victory in November.

Can we please have an end to the mutually assured destruction before it destroys a lot more than two candidacies?