If Ted Cruz is the Republican Party’s cure for Donald Trump, the antidote may be worse than the poison.
With polls showing the Texas senator rising to challenge the bombastic billionaire nationwide – and zooming past him in first-in-the-nation Iowa – the months-long bromance between the two men seems at an end. Trump raised questions Sunday about Cruz’s temperament and judgment, saying he had been “frankly like a little bit of a maniac” in the Senate.
Laugh out loud, if you will, at the idea of Trump calling anyone a maniac.
Still, it was Cruz, after all, who repeatedly crossed to the other side of the Capitol and led the House Republicans toward fiscal cliff after fiscal cliff. It was Cruz who shockingly called Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor. It was Cruz whom veteran Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., dismissed as a “wacko bird.”
Cruz, in fact, has spent his brief Senate career going out of his way to alienate the GOP establishment. To say the least, that’s an unorthodox way to court the party’s presidential nomination. But even his harshest critics agree that Cruz is whip-smart – and that he has run, thus far, an impressive campaign.
The Real Clear Politics poll average has Cruz second nationally among Republican voters at 16.3 percent. That puts him well behind Trump, who towers over the field with 31.4 percent support, but means he has overtaken Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the darling of the Republican establishment, who now lags with 13.3 percent.
And in Iowa, the Des Moines Register poll – considered the gold standard for handicapping that state’s caucuses – has Cruz leading all comers with 31 percent, followed by Trump with 21 percent.
Winning in Iowa is far from a guarantee of securing the nomination; just ask Mike Huckabee, who won the state in 2008, or Rick Santorum, who won it in 2012. Both found that while give-no-quarter social conservatism played well in the Hawkeye State, it had much less resonance in New Hampshire and beyond.
But this is a weird year, to put it mildly. Trump’s dominance of the campaign has panicked party elders who fear he would be an electoral disaster as the nominee. Trump’s extreme positions – promising to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and block all foreign Muslims from entering the country, to name just two – may play well with much of the GOP base. But they appall middle-of-the-road voters and could make this a “wave” election in which the Republican majorities in Congress are threatened.
So it is only natural that the party would look for a savior. If Rubio turns out not to have staying power – it’s hard to imagine which of the early states he is likely to win – and if Jeb Bush’s sparkless candidacy fails to ignite, then maybe Cruz becomes the designated Trump-slayer by default.
The problem is that having Cruz at the top of the ticket could be as disastrous for the Republican Party as rolling the dice with Trump.
Many of Cruz’s views are even more extreme – and more distant from the American mainstream. Begin with his contention that “President Obama is the most radical president this nation’s ever seen.” The activist GOP base may agree, but it’s useful to recall that voters did elect the alleged radical. Twice.
On climate change, Cruz is a full-fledged denier. A one-time clerk for the late William Rehnquist when he was chief justice, Cruz has characterized recent Supreme Court decisions legalizing same-sex marriage and upholding the Affordable Care Act as the “very definition of tyranny.” When Cruz said “we are facing what I consider to be the epic battle of our generation,” he was referring not to jihadist terrorism but to the fact that the government is helping people buy health insurance. He is Cuban American, but his anti-immigrant rhetoric approximates Trump’s.
Cruz is a champion debater whose eloquence often crosses the line into grandiloquence; one pictures him wearing a plumed hat. According to the Real Clear Politics average, only Trump fares worse among leading GOP candidates in a hypothetical matchup against Hillary Clinton.
But Trump, at least, cloaks his unthinkable policies beneath a certain populist appeal. Cruz’s self-assured extremism tells whole classes of voters – independents, minorities, women – to look elsewhere. He would be like Barry Goldwater without the avuncular charm.
Party leaders want the GOP to be more open and inclusive. Cruz would veer the party sharply in the other direction. Team Clinton must be smiling.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.