Politics is a breeding ground for martial metaphors, starting with the word “campaign” itself. Politicians “under fire” “take flak” as their consultants sit in “war rooms” and launch ad “blitzes” in “targeted districts” and “battleground states” to put their clients “over the top” - with the help of their “troops” in the field.
Most of us don’t even realize we’re using bellicose language. For instance, I’d guess most people think “over the top” is a term from football, not a reference to WWI trench warfare.
Still, there’s a reason politics lends itself to such language. Watching Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio emerge from the pack after last week’s CNBC debate, I was reminded of my favorite character from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
“The strongest of all warriors,” Field Marshal Kutuzov explained, “are these two: Time and Patience.”
With Napoleon’s army advancing, Kutuzov wisely wanted to wait for reinforcements before engaging in battle. When Russian generals demanded that Kutuzov attack Napoleon at his strongest, the field marshal 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 an awful lot like the Napoleons.
Consider some of the candidates who’ve already dropped out. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was undone because he was ill-prepared to be the front-runner. 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.
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 brilliant, classically trained debater, Cruz barely registered 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 anointed candidate of the so-called establishment. Rubio understood that he couldn’t defeat Jeb. 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 both have what the Germans call Fingerspitzengef￼hl, a real-time mastery of battlefield conditions “at the fingertips.”
Cruz revealed himself as the real contender for the “outsider” mantle he’s been maneuvering for all along. Dans le doute, abstiens-toi doesn’t actually mean doing nothing; it means preparing for your moment. As the Roman philosopher Seneca famously said, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
In preparation for his opportunity, 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 becoming ever more plausible that the race will come down to these two Cuban-Americans.
The “establishment” candidate usually wins the nomination, though this has not been a year to rely on the “usual.” Still, you can see the pincer movement unfolding, with Cruz and Rubio clearing out the opponents in their respective strategic theaters.
And then, when one defeats the other, he will choose his opponent as his running mate to unify a party at war with itself, ultimately pitting Hillary Clinton against “los hermanos Cubanos.”