Commentary Magazine


The Cliff Vote and the Ryan-Rubio Race

It did not escape the notice of political observers that some of the leading candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination came down on opposite sides of the vote on the fiscal cliff deal. No one was surprised that an extreme libertarian like Rand Paul would be one of the eight no votes in the Senate on the pact. But the votes of Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Paul Ryan did raise some eyebrows, and could potentially impact the way conservative primary voters view the pair four years from now when Iowa and New Hampshire are again the center of the political universe.

Rubio’s decision to join Paul in opposition to the deal makes sense for those who remember that although he is a very mainstream figure today, just three years ago he was viewed in Washington as just another Tea Party insurgent determined to upset the plans of the establishment to make Charlie Crist the GOP candidate for a Florida Senate seat. However, the reaction to Paul Ryan’s decision to join House Speaker John Boehner in supporting the pact did create something of a stir. Ryan’s vote for a deal that he and most other Republicans despised might have been the responsible thing to do since the alternative was to let the taxes of all Americans go up. But in doing so he may have lowered his stock among conservative activists who preferred the futile gesture of protest that most House Republicans made when they joined Majority Leader Eric Cantor in voting against the bill. Though no one should be under the misapprehension that we can know what will determine the outcome of primaries that will be held so far in the future, there’s little doubt Ryan’s stand is going to be held against him by some segments of his party.

Portraying someone who has been the leading congressional advocate of entitlement reforms as just another DC establishment tax and spender may be a stretch. But that’s exactly the line taken by former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough on his “Morning Joe” show today as he abused Ryan for his vote. While the rantings of an MSNBC host shouldn’t be confused for a scientific sample of conservative opinion, right-wing websites are already chiming in on his theme that Ryan’s votes for the prescription drug benefit add-on during the George W. Bush administration and his backing of the fiscal cliff deal mark him as part of the government spending problem rather than its solution.

The Ryan vote is an example of the difficulty of running for president while attempting to govern. It is easy for conservatives to agree with the stand of Rand and Rubio in opposing legislation that gave President Obama most of what he wanted while getting the GOP almost nothing in return on spending or entitlements. But had all House Republicans followed their lead, the bill would have been defeated, ensuring that all Americans would get a massive income tax hike in addition to the hit they will take from the rise in payroll deductions and the impact of ObamaCare on their pocketbooks.

Like the 2008 TARP vote that has been used to label some Republicans as sellouts, it’s likely that Ryan will never hear the end of this no matter how valiant his stands against Obama’s agenda in the coming months and years turn out to be. Though it is not a given that he or any of the candidates we currently assume will be the main choices in 2016 will actually run, it would be foolish to think this won’t be brought up in a future debate and have some impact on his prospects.

To be fair to Rubio, it would be wrong to paint his vote as a cynical pander to the GOP base since it is consistent with his past views on such inadequate compromises. Nevertheless, Rubio is giving us a clear indication that he is unlikely to cast any vote over the course of the next four years that can be portrayed as a betrayal of his Tea Party roots the way Ryan’s decision will be blasted. As a backbench member of the Senate minority, that’s easier for him than it would be for Ryan, who is chair of the House Budget Committee.

Four years is an eternity in politics and it may well be that when the GOP candidates are trudging through the snows in rural hamlets in Iowa and New Hampshire few will remember this week’s votes. A lot will happen between then and now to potentially alter the conservative base’s view of Ryan and Rubio. But right now it appears Rubio is staking out ground to the former veep candidate’s right. That can’t harm his chances of winning a future presidential nod.

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