It’s ever more plausible that the race will come down to these two Cuban Americans.-
Politics is a breeding ground for martial metaphors. Politicians “under fire” “take flak” as their consultants sit in “war rooms” and launch “ad blitzes” and “air campaigns” in “targeted districts” and “battleground states” to put their clients “over the top” — with the help of their “troops” on the ground. When that doesn’t work, the generals sometimes resort to some dreaded “nuclear option.” Even when it succeeds, the pundits often declare it a “Pyrrhic victory.”
Usually, people don’t even realize they’re using bellicose language. For instance, I’d guess most people think “over the top” is a term from football, not a reference to World War I trench warfare.
Still, there’s a reason politics lends itself to such language. Elections, like wars, are zero-sum contests in which victory hinges on waiting for the right moment. That is why the emergence of Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio from the pack after last week’s CNBC debate had me thinking of my favorite character from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
“The strongest of all warriors,” Gen. Kutuzov explains, “are these two: Time and Patience.”
According to Tolstoy, the real-life Kutuzov’s victory hinged on his ability to wait out Napoleon. He let France’s little corporal indulge his overconfidence until he became overextended. When everyone demanded that Kutuzov attack Napoleon at his strongest, the general replied, “Dans le doute, abstiens-toi.” (“When in doubt, do nothing.”)
Strategic patience is a difficult and valuable quality in an era of ever-shrinking news cycles and 24/7 social media carping. The temptation to react instantly to every controversy is hard to resist. So far, Cruz and Rubio have been the Kutuzovs of the race, while Jeb Bush and Donald Trump look a lot like the Napoleons.
Consider some of the candidates who have already dropped out. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was undone because he was ill-prepared to be the front-runner. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose impatience led to self-immolation in 2012, was well equipped on the issues this time. But he fatally attacked Trump when the Napoleonic mogul was at his strongest.
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Meanwhile, Cruz hung back, refusing to criticize Trump even though Trump was siphoning off many of the senator’s supporters and stealing Cruz’s populist thunder. A classically trained debater, Cruz barely stuck out in the first two debates. That was a choice. He was biding his time.
Then there’s Rubio. He also refused to take Trump’s bait. But of more strategic importance was his decision to draft behind Bush, the so-called establishment’s anointed candidate. Rubio understood that he couldn’t defeat Bush. He had to wait for his former mentor to defeat himself.
Both Cruz and Rubio seized their moment in the CNBC debate. Cruz’s perfectly pitched attack on the moderators and Rubio’s surgical jointing of Bush demonstrated that they have what the Germans call Fingerspitzengefühl, a real-time mastery of conditions “at the fingertips”
Cruz revealed himself as the real contender for the “outsider” mantle. Dans le doute, abstiens-toi doesn’t actually mean doing nothing; it means preparing for your moment. While Kutuzov waited for Napoleon to go too far, his troops trained for the battles to come. Cruz built a massive ground operation, setting up campaign chairs in all 172 of the counties in the first four primary states. Of course, Cruz still needs Trump to crumble, but he doesn’t seem worried about that.
Rubio’s success last week was more obvious. He demonstrated that he’s the alternative to Bush among establishment donors looking to back a winner. It’s no coincidence that within days of the debate, mega-donor Paul Singer came out as a Rubio backer.
What happens next is unknowable. But it’s ever more plausible that the race will come down to these two Cuban Americans.
You can see the pincers movement unfolding, with Rubio, the rebellious establishmentarian, and Cruz, the resume-building outsider, clearing out opponents in their strategic theater. And then, when one defeats the other, choosing his opponent as his running mate to unify a party at war with itself, ultimately pitting Hillary Rodham Clinton against “los hermanos Cubanos.”