So Ted Cruz is off to the races. Don’t know if you caught his This Week segment yesterday, but he was (a) in Iowa, and (b), insisting that he’s not thinking about 2016, the combination of which is a sure-fire sign that he’s in (it was for a guy named Obama in 2006). And what do we make of this? Seven months in the Senate! That’s less than Obama by two full years at a similar point. It seems preposterous and impossible, but in today’s Republican Party nothing is preposterous or impossible. He will run. He could win the nomination. But could he actually win the presidency? The real question is how far out there the GOP is prepared to go before it faces up to reality and comes back to the planet the rest of us inhabit. And the answer to that question, I think, is pretty damn far, far enough for it to benefit Cruz even as it kills the GOP.
Let’s start by acknowledging that Cruz isn’t a yahoo. He takes the wildest yahoo positions arguably of any prominent politician in America, although of course the competition for that distinction is increasingly fierce. I mean, he is way out there. The right 30-second attack ads could just shred him to bits. Plus, smooth-tongued though he is, he’s bound to say crazy things on the campaign trail, about women, gays, undocumented immigrants, what have you. He practically makes Paul Ryan look like Paul Wellstone.
But in spite of that, he is at the same time something of an intellectual. He’s Harvard Law. He has argued before the Supreme Court. He is widely read. He can quote Rawls, they tell me (John, not Lou). He’s no Dubya and is not to be misunderestimated.
And he obviously has more than book smarts. He has cunning. This Joe McCarthy act he has down pat—on Chuck Hagel, on Benghazi—may be disgusting and, well, McCarthyite, but don’t think it isn’t by design. Cruz knows that being compared to McCarthy by people like me is manna from heaven: it makes rank-and-file wingnuts stand up for him, and it makes rich ones open their checkbooks. They already celebrate him. I mean, just think of it this way: How many senators can you even name? I bet not 30. How many first-term senators can you name who were elected in 2012? There were 12, and the only one who might be better-known than Cruz is Elizabeth Warren. (Quick: Where is Martin Heinrich from?)
So Cruz stands out, as Rich Yeselson put it in a sharp Politico column last week arguing that he could indeed capture the GOP nomination next time, like “a neon peacock in a party of Guernsey cows.” He can articulate the base’s rage in a way that infuriates and confounds liberals, and that matches them reference for reference. In today’s GOP there are few better skills to possess.
So sure, I agree with Yeselson; he could win the nomination. Ultimately it may depend on whether Republicans feel they have a legitimate shot of winning. If Hillary Clinton doesn’t run; if unemployment somehow ticks (or better still from their perspective shoots) back up; if some big scandal (actual, not fake like the ones trotted out so far) befalls the administration or calamity befalls the country; then, I suspect, Republicans will decide that they have a real shot at this thing and they’d better choose someone quasi-respectable like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie.
But if Clinton gets in, unemployment is below 7 percent, and America is scandal-and-calamity free, I bet conservatives will think in the back of their minds, “What the hell, we’re gonna lose anyway, so we might as well choose someone we really like, which we didn’t do last time, and be entertained in the process.”
Cruz knows that being compared to McCarthy by people like me is manna from heaven.
Now let’s be clear. Cruz would lose. Clinton would destroy him. Oh, maybe we’ll have an economic meltdown in September 2016, and unemployment on Election Day will be 9 percent; or maybe someone will learn that Bill has been doing something extracurricular that shocks even longtime Bill-watchers. But barring those two circumstances, she’ll crush him like a grape. Remember where you read it: If 2016 pits Clinton against Cruz, the Democrats will carry Georgia. Yes, Georgia (last carried by her husband in 1992, but not 1996). Under normal conditions, Cruz can’t possibly top 165 electoral votes against her. Even against Martin O’Malley, his various paths lead to 235, 240.
And this brings us to the interesting question my liberal pals and I have been discussing, more interesting than the question of Cruz’s chances of becoming president, which are near nil. From our point of view, would Cruz-as-nominee be a good or bad thing? The “good” case is much along the lines I laid out above, although it goes further: Yes, he’d be creamed; and then, after having lost three elections in a row, and the popular vote in seven out of the last eight, the Republicans would finally return to some measure of sanity. This is the Cruz-as-Robespierre theory: he’d take things so far that nearly everyone would say, “OK, we’ve gone a little far, and we’re sick of losing, so let’s tack toward the center and change a few positions” (path to citizenship, same-sex marriage, etc.).Thermidor would set in.
Then there’s the Cruz-as-Mirabeau theory. Mirabeau was a moderate in the French Revolution. In the early days, 1789 and 1790, he was a real player; then things got away from him and the power center moved left to Robespierre. Cruz is no moderate, of course, but what I mean here is this. It is possible that having Cruz as the nominee could move the party—and the country—even further to the right; that even if he loses, some people will say (inevitably!) that it was because he betrayed his real conservative values. So entirely the wrong lesson will be learned. A corollary here is that lightning could strike and Cruz could actually win. A Cruz presidency would be a horror beyond my ability to contemplate, but as I said above, I have a hard time seeing it being in the cards.
So I welcome a Cruz candidacy. The best thing that can happen to this country—the most important thing that needs to happen—is for the Republican Party to return to some version of what it was in the 1980s, say, when it was conservative to be sure but its members weren’t so feverishly devoted to some ideological and cultural vision of an abstract America that they were actively trying to burn the existing America down. My sense tells me a Cruz candidacy hastens that day. To quote Rawls, Republicans, you’ll never find another love like his.