How Did Cruz Become the Sane Alternative to Trump?

Noah Rothman of Commentary magazine got some attention yesterday when he somehow managed to blame perceived inadequacies in President Obama’s brief national address to the nation for Donald Trump’s decision to call for a complete blanket ban of Muslim immigration.

I wasn’t much interested in this mini-controversy but it did spur me to take a look at Rothman’s analysis of the Trump phenomenon. I found it more interesting for the kinds of assumptions he makes than for any kind of predictive value.

To begin, Mr. Rothman is very confident that Donald Trump’s star will soon set. Trump’s commanding lead is deceptive and based on “polls of a nonexistent national primary electorate.” He believes that the prognosticators don’t think Trump has staying power and “In the early states, a clearer picture of a more predictable race is coming into view.” This is a supportable thesis, even if it isn’t exactly a swiss watch. Nate Silver, for example, has been arguing much the same thing, and a new Monmouth poll out of Iowa shows Ted Cruz in the lead.

What concerns Rothman, however, is that Trump may have already done irreversible damage to the Republican brand. He assures us that the Democrats will try to cast every opponent as a “Trump Republican” and drive wedges between candidates and the base whenever they can.

He also believes that the nomination will soon become a two-way race between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are both cast as typical, standard, expected, mainstream Republican candidates.

This is a theme I first noticed with Charlie Cook, who likewise cast Ted Cruz as almost a safe Romneyesque alternative to the more roguish Trump.

I think some people on the right are suffering from severe epistemic closure on this issue. I think Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has a much more realistic picture of what Cruz represents.

Lindsey Graham tossed out his planned speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition on Thursday to rip into the candidate who preceded him on stage, calling Ted Cruz an unelectable hard-liner who would alienate women and Latinos and cause the Republican Party to lose in 2016…

“If the nominee of the Republican Party will not allow for an exception for rape and incest, they will not win,” Graham said. “Ted Cruz doesn’t have an exception for rape or incest.”

The South Carolina senator went on. “He says the debate’s going to be the Little Sisters of the Poor. He’s gonna take the fight to the Democrats about their wanting to impose social policy on charitable organizations,” he said. “It will be about rape. … It will be about the nominee of the Republican Party telling a woman who’s been raped you’ve got to carry the child of the rapist.”
“Good luck with that,” Graham said.

“We will lose if that’s the position of the nominee of the Republican Party,” he added. “We will lose young women in droves.”

Back in October, Sen. Graham went after Marco Rubio on exactly the same issue. In response, Rubio’s spokesman, Alex Conant, referred people to the senator’s August appearance on Meet the Press where he declared, “I personally and deeply believe that all human life is worthy of the protection of our laws. I do. And I believe that irrespective of the conditions by which that life was conceived or anything else.”

The two Cuban-American senators’ position on rape exceptions (there should be none) is hardly the only area where one or both of them is out of the mainstream. What distinguishes them from each other, though, is that Cruz is unapologetically at war with the mainstream of the party while Marco Rubio seeks to be their alternative to a flailing Jeb Bush.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that it’s the wrong way of thinking about things to believe that the GOP’s problems will be solved if Trump just gets out of the way. Cruz and Rubio may look sane and temperate by comparison, but Sen. Graham’s point is solid.

Cruz, in particular, will present many of the same problems by, for example, dividing the party elite which neither likes nor trusts him, and by taking toxic positions on many issues that will put a lot of supposedly safe members of Congress in an uncomfortable position.

In other words, Rothman is correct to be concerned about the lasting damage Trump is doing to the party, but he’s wrong to think Trump is alone in this.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.