Rubio or Cruz?

The first Republican candidate elected president was Abraham Lincoln. And Lincoln had to walk through the minefield of immigration politics as gingerly as today’s GOP contenders. Lincoln realized he would get few votes from Irish immigrants -- they were welded since Jackson’s time to “the Democracy,” as the Democrats were then known. So Lincoln was very careful not to alienate America’s second largest bloc of immigrant voters -- the Germans. For a time, Lincoln was so concerned to communicate with German-American voters, he even took German lessons. When that effort failed, he aligned with German editors and activists in the new Republican Party. Gustave Koerner was a Lincoln stalwart who helped gain the 1860 nomination for the Railsplitter in Chicago’s Wigwam.

As essential as the support of Koerner and his fellow German-speakers was to Lincoln’s nomination, it was also key to Lincoln’s sweeping the electoral votes of all the Northern states. The South in 1860 -- apart from the Shenandoah Valley and Texas -- had very few German immigrants.

What lessons do we see in this history for today? Many writers are seeing the eventual contest in the Republican presidential race coming down to a clash between two Cuban-American senators -- Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). This is beneficial in one way: Cuban-Americans have a measure of seriousness few of us can match. They know it is possible to lose your country. While liberal columnists deplore Rubio and Cruz’s tone on the campaign trail, it is not out of line for the Outs to “view with alarm” just as the In-party regularly “points with pride” to the record of the previous four years.

This is wholly within our American political tradition. To challenger Barack Obama, George W. Bush’s executive actions were a clear and present danger to the Constitution and our freedoms and he said so.

If it should come down to Rubio and Cruz, I would vote for Rubio. It is vitally important for the Republicans to win the 2016 election. Rubio fits William F. Buckley, Jr.’s axiom of electoral politics: We want the most conservative nominee who can be elected. Rubio maintains a 100% record on the conservative FRCAction voter scorecard. Cruz’s score is a still-impressive 92%. Both candidates, therefore, should be broadly acceptable to social conservatives. On national defense and economics, they will both campaign for a stronger U.S. military and a freer market that expands opportunity for the struggling middle class.

Ted Cruz has caught a wave of discontent among grassroots who chafe at the dominance of the Republican Establishment. Cruz is an eloquent opponent of the status quo.

Rubio has claims, as well, to carry the support of Tea Party adherents. He had to buck virtually the entire GOP establishment in his uphill fight against Gov. Charlie Crist (R) to win his Senate seat. He has not forgotten his outsider appeal.

But unlike Cruz, Rubio recognizes the need to unite Republicans. And he will have appeal to blue-collar Democrats, as well. His compelling personal story enables him to compete with the Democratic nominee on that all-important pollsters’ question: Cares about people like me? Poor Mitt Romney lost out to Obama 81-19 on that crucial question.

Cruz is certainly brilliant. If any of us had a family member going to trial and sought an aggressive and ingenious advocate in the courtroom, we would probably choose Cruz.

But we cannot discount likeability. George W. Bush doubtless owes his two squeaker elections to things like Al Gore’s impatient sighs in the 2000 debates and blueblood John Kerry’s haughty disdain for his opponent four years later.

Ted Cruz has made a point of his willingness to buck the Establishment in Washington. That’s certainly positive. But he has seemingly bucked everyone else, too. There are virtually no endorsements of Cruz from any of his congressional colleagues. He also seems not to know how far to take his criticisms. He called his own Majority Leader a liar on the floor of the U.S. Senate. That conduct used to get a senator censured. Question: If he cannot get along with his own party members, how likely is he to get along with any of the Opposition?

Ronald Reagan paired his strong conservative convictions with a personal graciousness. However much liberals savaged him -- and it was often mean and ugly -- he never responded in kind. Thus, we have in Reagan the embodiment of the Happy Warrior. Once, a puzzled journalist asked him why Americans liked him so much. Without hesitation, President Reagan said: “Well, I like Americans.”

His White House aide, Mike Deaver, described him as warm and embraceable like an old pillow. But once you wrap your arms around that pillow, you notice there’s a steel rod within. That’s Ronald Reagan. Ted Cruz has mastered the steel rod part, but not the warm and embraceable part.

This will matter if he’s our nominee -- a lot. It will be very hard for a Republican nominee to make the case for much tighter border security. But we will have an easier time making that case with Marco Rubio than with Ted Cruz -- and Rubio can make the case in persuasive English and Spanish.

We have a grave challenge. If we do not secure the border, we cease to be a nation. And we may unwittingly leave a door open to ISIS slaughterers. But if we speak about immigration in a way that turns off millions of legal immigrants already here, we will lose the election. It’s that simple.

Ted Cruz is trying to compete with Trump for the anti-immigrant vote. If he succeeds, he will lead a party hopelessly branded as the anti-immigrant party. Lincoln’s record is not unique. Every anti-immigrant party has collapsed in this country. The Federalists. The Whigs. In the 1920s, it was said Franklin Roosevelt’s Rolodex looked like a Dublin phonebook, he was that friendly with the Irish. And his appeal to immigrant voters propelled him to four electoral victories over the anti-immigrant Republicans.

Only immigrant-friendly Ike and Ronald Reagan have been able to overcome the Republican caricature as anti-immigrant. We need to scotch that image. Marco Rubio can do that for us.

Robert Morrison is a former Reagan administration official.