The contours of the race for the 2016 Republican nomination have been pretty much the same ever since the second primary debate: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina leading the field and combining for damn near a majority of the GOP vote, with the rest of the candidates picking up various amounts of the remainder. As has been pointed out here and in several other places, the three front-runners have spent a grand total of zero days in elected office, which suggests that Republican voters are kind of fed up with the people they’ve voted for in the past. Given the inexperience of the top three candidates and their penchants for saying very stupid and very false things, it’s an open question as to how long they’ll be able to maintain their positions. But for the moment, the GOP’s base is in an extremely anti-establishment mood.
This poses challenges for those candidates who are a bit smoother and a bit more polished, but who also bear the taint of electoral success. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker tried positioning himself as a D.C. outsider, threatening to “wreak havoc” on the nation’s capital, but voters rejected him because he was a dull lump of porridge who had won three elections in five years. The problem is even thornier for candidates who are actually at this very moment part of the federal government. There are several sitting senators running for the Republican nomination, and they’re each approaching their status as part of the hated establishment in different ways.
Lindsey Graham loves being a senator and loves being part of the establishment and he makes no effort to pretend he is anything but a creature of official Washington. His life is happily spent shuffling between Senate hearings and the sets of various Sunday shows. He doesn’t care if you hate him for it – Graham’s existence is defined by his inclusion in important-sounding cliques like the “Gang of [Insert Number]” and the “Three Amigos.” He will die a senator or be primaried and spend the rest of his life just hanging out around the Capitol.
Lindsey Graham will never be president.
Rand Paul has only been a senator since 2011, and, like Lindsey Graham, he desperately wants to hold on to his position of authority within the federal government. He spent months and months figuring out a way to get around a Kentucky law that would prevent him from running for president and for reelection to the Senate at the same time. He finally succeeded in convincing the Kentucky Republican Party to carve out the loophole he needed, at the steep price tag of $250,000. And it turns out he was prescient in his desire for a Plan B because Plan A is looking like it won’t end prettily.
But Paul insists that he’s a political “outsider” even as he clamors to stay inside the establishment. He offers himself to voters as a humble eye doctor railing against the “Washington Machine.” Working in Washington, he argues, only makes him more dissatisfied with how Washington works, which is why we need term limits. Oddly enough, the strongest claim Rand Paul has to “outsider” status – his libertarian-ish viewpoints on issues like national security and government spending – were among the things he jettisoned in preparation for his presidential run.
Like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz very much wants voters to know that he is a U.S. senator. Cruz, however, is using his perch within the establishment to try to expose to conservatives how rotten it has become and how he is the only man in Washington who will “fight” for their values.
Right now, Cruz is exhausting what authority he has as a senator to pick a series of humiliating, doomed-to-fail procedural fights in order to offer himself as an example of what it means to stand on “principle” when it comes to issues like Planned Parenthood funding. In the process, he’s alienating just about every one of his Senate colleagues from both parties, who are understandably fed up with his showboating. The message he’s sending is simple: Ted Cruz can’t be considered a part of the establishment because literally everyone in the establishment hates him.
Marco Rubio’s strategy for sloughing off the taint of insiderism is remarkably disingenuous: He argues that he’s barely a senator and wasn’t ever really into being a senator and he’s never even heard of “The Senate” is it a new restaurant or something?
Here’s what he said on Fox News earlier this week, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times:
Marco Rubio, a career politician, is trying to make the argument that he's not an insider as outsiders Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina generate buzz.
"Yes, I've worked in the Senate for four years. But I'm not of the Senate," Rubio told Sean Hannity last night. Rubio said he went to the Senate because "I didn't like the direction of this country" and that's why he's dumping the Senate and running for president.
That’s going to be a tough argument to sustain, especially since Rubio has boasted of the work he’s done in the legislative body that he doesn’t claim to be a spiritual member of. Back in April he was saying things like “I’ve done more [on] immigration than Hillary Clinton ever did,” explicitly contrasting their records as U.S. senators. “I mean, I helped pass an immigration bill in a Senate dominated by Democrats. And that's more than she's ever done. She's given speeches on it, but she's never done anything on it.”
And when Rubio says he “helped” pass the comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, he’s actually underselling his involvement in the bill’s passage. The senators from both parties who worked to pass the bill described Rubio’s contributions as critical to the bill’s final passage. “Marco has been really the linchpin on the Republican side,” Sen. Jeff Flake said. “He has been invaluable,” Sen. Dick Durbin told the New Yorker. After the bill passed the Senate, establishment Republicans were quick to praise Rubio as the crucial component to reaching bipartisan compromise. “One thing I think is pretty clear,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told CNN at the time, “We wouldn't have been in this place without Republicans being at the table pushing for immigration reform. And I think this conversation would never be happening without Marco Rubio.”
All that points to a senator who worked pretty well within the establishment before he realized what a political millstone such a record might prove to be.