Ted Cruz’s surge to the top of the polls in Iowa, and into second place nationally, gave immediate relevance to something campaign-watchers have known for months. Unlike so many flash-in-the-pan candidates of the past few cycles, who’ve risen from the bottom of the pack, seemingly out of nowhere, only to collapse just as suddenly, Cruz has assembled an intimidating, intelligent, and durable campaign operation.
He enters January not just as the putative favorite to win the Iowa caucuses, but with an impressive ground game, intense grassroots support, technical prowess, and lots of money to spend.
This development has startled liberals, who correctly perceive Cruz to be more right-wing than any Republican officeholder with such a clear path to the nomination. And it’s left more institutionalist Republicans resting their hopes on two unsafe, somewhat inconsistent bets: First, that should Cruz win in Iowa, it would constitute a fatal blow to Donald Trump. Second, that Iowa will continue to be a poor indicator of future performance in the race to amass delegates. Only then would a more palatable candidate like Marco Rubio be able to emerge and unite the party’s warring factions, without threatening the established order.
As wishful thinking goes, this isn’t the most far-fetched forecast for the race. But it’s one borne of shortsightedness and petty spite.
Cruz would be the most unapologetically right-wing major-party nominee since Barry Goldwater, and would thus have an extremely difficult time appealing to the shrinking yet still-meaningful, pool of voters who are undecided between Democrats and Republicans. But he would also give the GOP something it desperately needs: an opportunity to purge its ranks of scores and scores of self-interested operatives and advisers who treat campaigns as opportunities to soak candidates and build networks of future clients. It would also provide a clarifying moment for the conservative movement and the rest of the country. For conservatives, it would be the first time since Ronald Reagan (or arguably Goldwater) that they’d see the Republican Party run a candidate who is a leader of the movement itself. For the broader public, a Cruz nomination would provide a referendum on the substantive aims of American conservatism, untempered for once by the unprincipled, election-driven impulse to tack to the center.
Cruz began his Senate career at war with Republican Party leaders. They didn’t want him to be their party’s 2012 nominee in Texas, and they didn’t appreciate his allegiance to conservative advocacy groups that fund primaries against Republican incumbents.
As an heir to former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, Cruz became the unofficial leader of a faction of senators who frequently rebel against conference leaders, but he took on the role with more determination than DeMint ever showed. He used his influence to rally members of the House to strategically thwart Speaker John Boehner, and he campaigned the party into a government shutdown its leaders wanted badly to avoid.
They genuinely dislike him. As you might expect, so do their aides and former aides and supporters. Indeed, Cruz has courted animosity from peers and colleagues for his entire adult life.
But that professional animosity has metastasized from a skepticism rooted in tactical disagreement and partisan loyalty into a far less lofty form of careerism. In their years-long efforts to undermine Cruz’s legislative hijinks, Republican operatives labored under the assumption that Cruz would be a thorn-in-the-side senator for life—a political nuisance with real, but circumscribed, power.
Now that he stands an extremely good chance of winning the Republican nomination, some of Cruz’s intra-GOP antagonists are lashing out to defeat him, even at the risk of strengthening Donald Trump.
If some Republicans are willing to empower Trump at Cruz’s expense, it stands to reason that there’s more to the Cruz backlash than either personal animus (they hate Trump, too) or party-first pragmatism (Trump would also be a disaster for the party). A Cruz candidacy would be professionally catastrophic to professional Republicans because he’d freeze most of the consultant class out of the campaign and White House for disloyalty.
The downside risk for the GOP as an institution is that Cruz’s rise would empower a different class of operatives who are much more conservative, and who may prove to be just as self-dealing. But it’s hard to argue that the party would be worse off without the incentive structure that gave rise to the delusion, deception, and failure that marked its 2012 campaign.
A Cruz nomination would also pay a different, more abstract and longer-term dividend. It is an article of faith in the conservative movement (and to the senator himself) that Republicans only win elections when they nominate “true conservatives” as opposed to consensus candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney. This analysis is flawed and self-serving, but it festers at the center of the Republican Party’s civil war.
For that war to end, the analysis will have to be tested one way or another. Either a Jeb Bush-like candidate will have to win the presidency, or a Cruz-like candidate will have to win the nomination as an existential roll of the dice for the right. If Cruz were to win the presidency, the reactionary wing of the Republican Party would become even more empowered than it already is. If he were to lose, the party’s governing faction would be able to make a convincing case that practicing strident, procedurally extreme politics is a loser for a national party (just as John Boehner won temporary breathing room to cut legislative deals after Cruz’s shutdown ended in political disaster).
This isn’t to say old patterns would never re-emerge. Conservatives would presumably chalk Cruz’s defeat up to the fact that the party apparatus had attacked him publicly for so many years; Republican operatives will attribute any defeat in 2016 to the pall Donald Trump has cast over the party. And if Cruz were to become president, he’d quickly discover the limits of governing as a tribalist—that is, as the representative not even of a party, but of a faction of a party.
No matter the outcome, though, Cruz’s candidacy would provide desperately needed clarity—not just to his own party, but to the broader electorate.
Where someone like Marco Rubio hopes to run a campaign that conceals a right-wing agenda behind a compelling personal narrative and small-bore heterodoxies, Cruz’s platform is more right-wing still and uncloaked in the language of compassion Republicans discover every four years when the presidency is on the line. Where Rubio touts the fact that he wounded Obamacare, and proposes to transform it into a less generous coverage scheme, Cruz insists on repealing the law with barely a trifle to replace it. Where Rubio proposes to conceal a historically massive tax cut for the affluent behind promises to direct modest tax benefits to working-class families, Cruz pledges to throw out the entire tax code and replace it with an unapologetically regressive combination of value-added and flat income taxes.
Cruz wants to return to the gold standard. He is hewing ever closer to Trump’s maximally restrictive position on immigration. In Rubio’s stump speech, he appeals to voters outside the Republican Party base. By contrast, Cruz, in his announcement speech, asked the Christian conservatives of Liberty University to “imagine millions of courageous conservatives, all across America, rising up together to say in unison ‘we demand our liberty’ [and] millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”
Since its inception, the conservative movement has been a revanchist one, bent on rescinding the ill-gotten benefits of liberalism and returning them from “other people” to their rightful owners. Republicans generally do a much better job hiding the movement’s essential nature in presidential election years than in the intervening three—which is politically wise, but also denies voters a clear sense of how vastly the aims of conservatism and liberalism differ. As a creature of the movement, Cruz would present the conservative agenda to the public in a much more unvarnished way, and the public would render its verdict.
The danger of a Cruz nomination is that an exogenous shock to the political system—a recession, say, or a international crisis—could hand him the presidency even as the steady-state preferences of the electorate suggest he would lose quite badly.
But then, such a shock would probably hand the presidency to any Republican nominee, who would begin dutifully signing legislation passed by the Mitch McConnell-Paul Ryan Congress. The incremental risk of a Cruz candidacy is dwarfed by the salutary effect it would have on the political system, both within the Republican Party and without. Everyone should learn to stop worrying and love Ted Cruz.