The last two presidential elections have seen joke candidacies and the joke is on us. In 2012, Herman Cain jumped into the lead for the Republican nomination on the basis of being able to serenely intone 9-9-9 (shorthand for a tax plan that even he did not always seem to understand). In our current cycle, Donald Trump has led the polls for the last six months despite (because of?) his penchant for outrageous insults and obviously impossible promises. Both the Cain and the Trump candidacies have the feel of stunts by publicity-hungry men that went way too far, because the public took them too seriously. Whose fault is that?

The first temptation would be to blame the voters, but Cain's candidacy collapsed before the first delegate selecting contest, and Trump was defeated in Iowa (despite getting quite a few votes.) The voters ultimately had the good sense to turn away from these stunt candidacies, but it is a measure of the rot in our political system that voters were so hungry for the authenticity they thought they saw in Herman Cain, and so desperate for the willingness to stand up for American wage-earners they saw in Trump. Cain is gone and Trump will very likely be dispatched, but the rot in our politics remains, and it would be well if our two leading conventional Republican politicians (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) recognized and tried to rectify the situation.

Ted Cruz seems like a principled politician. He shifts on some issues, and he is obviously ambitious. But, to the extent that any politician can ever be trusted, Cruz seems like someone who will stick by principle on matters of abortion, religious liberty, appointing constitutionalist judges, and keeping the size of the government from crushing the economy. He can also come off as an ideological politician in the bad sense of the word, however.

Cruz supports the repeal of Obamacare—as do all the Republican presidential candidates. At the most recent debate, Cruz was asked about the millions of Americans who might lose their health insurance (whether in the form of Medicaid or exchange subsidies) if Obamacare was repealed.

Cruz answered that he would seek to expand interstate sales of health insurance policies, expand use of health savings accounts and to “de-link health insurance from employment.”

At the level of abstraction, this is all fine, but it still doesn't answer the question that many millions of people have. How exactly does a wage-earner who is currently getting health insurance through Obamacare get health insurance in a post-Obamacare world? Policy proposals for a post Obamacare world exist, but Cruz didn't talk about them. He sounded indifferent to the people whose health insurance coverage was endangered. He sounded like a conservative Mike Dukakis.

Mike Dukakis was the liberal governor of Massachusetts and the 1988 Democratic candidate for president. In an era where the violent crime rate was much higher, Dukakis was asked if he would support the death penalty in the case of his wife's murder. Dukakis focused his answer on drugs and called for a “hemispheric summit” on drugs.

Whatever Dukakis's feelings about crime, he gave the impression that people's fears of violent crime were unimportant to him. Dukakis gave the impression that he considered crime to be somebody else's problem and a distraction from the real issues. That impression might have been false. The Dukakis family had been victimized by violent crime in the past. Cruz, too, may care deeply about the plight of people whose health insurance situation is precarious. When discussing issues that especially impact wage-earners, conservative politicians would do well to ask themselves, “Do I sound like Mike Dukakis talking about crime?”

Marco Rubio has a different problem. Rubio's tax and health insurance plans are more directly aimed at people around the earnings median (though it is doubtful that even one-in-ten voters know anything of those plans) and Rubio never misses an opportunity to mention his humble beginnings. The problem for Rubio is that he picked the wrong fight at the wrong time with the wrong people.

Rubio became a senator by defeating the obviously opportunistic (but popular and establishment-backed) sitting governor of Florida for the Republican nomination. Rubio entered Washington as a Tea Party rebel. But, on the issue that most starkly divided the Republican grassroots (and weakly-attached-to-politics working-class whites) from the Republican elites, Rubio sided with the elites. Rubio went back on his earlier opposition to upfront amnesty and he supported a wildly unpopular increase in future immigration (especially low-skill immigration).

It is almost impossible to overstate how much Rubio's flip-flop on immigration poisoned the political atmosphere. Rubio was the best known of the Tea Party senators and was widely touted as a future president. Rubio could have used his position to seek a middle ground between those who favored upfront amnesty and those who opposed any amnesty ever. Instead, Rubio betrayed his supporters and chose to champion an extreme version of the immigration policy favored by the Republican elites that had originally opposed his nomination. By making a mockery of even protest politics, Rubio helped open the door for the absurdism of the Trump campaign. Rubio's problem is that making promises to wage earners will only get him so far. We have already seen him break promises and labor for his party's elites.

It won't be easy for Cruz and Rubio to show that they are authentically willing to fight for wage-earners. Cruz could develop a program that is better-targeted to the middle-class, but habits don't just fade away. Rubio could confront his past lapses on immigration and genuinely seek common ground (which does not have to mean complete capitulation) with people who are immigration skeptics within his party. It would be difficult for both Cruz and Rubio, but they are both driven and talented politicians—and if Donald Trump can reinvent himself as the champion of the working-man, almost anything is possible.

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.

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