When then-Senator Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond and his segregationist campaign for president in 1948—"We voted for him. We're proud of it."—it all but cost him his career. In a sane world, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would also be on the political ropes, in his case, for cheering the late Jesse Helms of North Carolina, an unreconstructed bigot who devoted his life to the defense of white supremacy and the advancement of far-right politics. Instead, Cruz—who in many ways is the ideological successor to Helms—will lose nothing, and continue to act as the avatar for forces that will destroy the Republican Party if they aren't stopped.
First, the details. Yesterday, Cruz delivered a foreign policy address at the conservative Heritage Foundation for the Jesse Helms Lecture Series.
(That this even exists is fitting for an organization that—until this year—employed a scientific racist to write a report on why Congress should reject comprehensive immigration reform, and in particular, an easier to path to residency and citizenship for low-income Latino workers.)
Cruz's speech began with a little trivia about his political history: His first campaign donation—at ten years old—was to Helms. He continued with a declaration: "We need 100 more Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate."
For the ostensibly freedom-loving Cruz, it's an incredible statement. After all, this is the Jesse Helms who entered public life as a journalist defending Southern apartheid in the 1960s, and who won election to the Senate in 1972 as an opponent of integration, interracial marriage and civil rights laws. In 1980, the year a young Cruz made his donation, Helms pushed an appropriations bill—co-sponsored by Strom Thurmond—that would have stripped the Justice Department of its ability to enforce busing. Helms won his 1990 reelection campaign with one of the most racist political ads in recent memory—accusing his African American challenger, then-Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, of taking jobs from whites to give to blacks—and devoted his time to institutionalizing homophobia, with attacks on gays and assaults on AIDS funding. To Helms, LGBT Americans were "weak, morally sick wretches," and AIDS education was "obscene" and "revolting."
Not that this bigotry was an obstacle to his ascendance in the Republican Party. Helms was a pioneer of the conservative movement; as a vanguard of the evangelical right, as a promoter of direct mail strategies, and as a scorched-earth strategist who won by mobilizing his base and demoralizing his opposition. The Helms approach was crude—it relied, almost exclusively, on race- and gay-baiting—but it worked. You can draw a fairly straight line from Helms to Karl Rove, who tamed and adapted the approach for a national audience.
The same goes for the Helms and the Tea Party, which shares his deep hostility to government—with fanatical opposition to spending on nearly everything but benefits for themselves—and international cooperation.
One thing, however, is worth noting about Helms, his strategies, and his priorities; at no point was he able to win more than 54 percent of the vote, with a median performance—out of five elections over twenty-four years—of 52.6 percent. And of course, his support was almost exclusively white.
In other words, you can win with a base mobilization strategy, but it leaves you vulnerable to demography. As soon as your voters drop as a share of the electorate, the game is over. Which is what happened to Helms's successor, Elizabeth Dole, who lost her 2008 reelection bid to the young, multi-racial coalition of Kay Hagan. Which brings us back to Ted Cruz.
His pitch to Republicans is straightforward. It's not that America rejects your ideas or your principles, it's that we haven't done enough to apply them. The people want a conservative fighter, and if we slash government even more, we'll be rewarded with victory. Hence his strident disdain for the House Republican leaders who want to avoid a government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act. Cruz has sparked a near-rebellion among ultraconservative House members with his open attacks on a plan to "defund" Obamacare with a symbolic vote, and pass a separate continuing resolution to fund the government.
But Cruz is wrong. The broad public has consistently voiced its opposition to the GOP's anti-government mania. In last year's elections, it didn't just reject Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan; it turned its back Republican candidates at all levels of government. The Jesse Helms approach to politics—which Cruz exemplifies—has been nothing but destructive to GOP prospects. It dominates the House of Representatives, where far-right conservatives dominate the GOP caucus, and cost Republicans a Senate majority in two consecutive elections. Indeed, the pattern of of legislative hostage-taking, debt ceiling threats, and endless confrontations is poised to do the same in next year's elections.
Simply put, the only thing the Republican Party has to gain from Ted Cruz and his brigade of Jesse Helms's is the complete collapse of its national appeal. Which is why, if I were working to preserve the future of the GOP, I would be looking for every way possible to sabotage Cruz before he—and his acolytes—do irreparable harm to the party.