Cruz Is Not the Alternative to Trump

That Ted Cruz is not a natural leader of men was perhaps best illustrated recently by remarks Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff John Holmes made to the Washington Post, “There’s not a lot of love lost for the guy. And it’s not what he’s trying to accomplish or what he says he’s trying to accomplish that bothers people. It’s that he’s consistently sacrificed the mutual goals of many for his personal enhancement.”

Jonathan Chait put it this way:

Millions of conservative activists fail to understand why the [president’s] veto power prevents Republicans from abolishing Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, or otherwise carrying on as though they have unfettered power. This lack of understanding by their voters poses the single largest annoyance to elected Republicans. Cruz knows better, and Republicans in Washington know he knows better, which makes Cruz’s repeated insistence that Republicans who refuse to follow his doomed kamikaze missions must lack conviction an intolerable lie.

This friction goes a long way toward explaining why Ted Cruz is so loathed by his Senate colleagues that they have twice gone to the extreme of refusing to offer him the routine courtesy (on the yeas and nays) of a roll call vote. I wrote back in September that:

“…in his little time in the Senate, Cruz has managed to alienate himself from his colleagues in a way that I’ve never seen before. There have been similar senators in the past, I guess, but I can’t think of any since Joe McCarthy who can even begin to compare to how the Senate feels about Cruz. And I don’t think McCarthy suffered the same kind of rebukes from his colleagues until he’d been in the Senate for about seven years and was finally censured.”

It says a lot that a senior Republican senator like Lamar Alexander compared Cruz unfavorably with a kindergartner: “You learn that in kindergarten: You learn to work well together and play by the rules. Another thing you learn in kindergarten is to respect one another.”

Things got tense quickly when Cruz arrived in the Senate in January 2013. He began by accusing nominee for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of being on the North Korean payroll. By early March, John McCain had already referred to him as a “wacko bird.” But it wasn’t until last summer that things got absolutely toxic. That was when Cruz took to the Senate floor and accused Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of lying to his face and being in cahoots with Minority Leader Harry Reid–“united in favor of Big Government.”

That was when freshman Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said, “It’s not how you treat a colleague regardless of how you feel.” It’s when Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said, “I think we have to take special care to abide by the rules of the Senate, particularly Rule 19, which is very clear that no senator is to impugn the integrity of another senator.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, “I don’t think that’s leadership. I think that’s demagoguery.”

It soon became clear that the dislike of Ted Cruz spread far beyond the Senate. Then-Speaker of the House John Boehner openly referred to him as a ‘jackass.’ President George W. Bush came right out and said he simply doesn’t like the guy. To drive home the point, Karl Rove went on Fox News and explained precisely why his former boss hates Ted Cruz.

We need to keep all of this history in mind when we think about the collective freakout about Donald Trump. It’s true that many congressional Republicans are having a panic attack about Trump’s potential to cost them their majorities, but as Niall Stanage notes in The Hill, the worst nightmare is being forced to choose between Trump and Cruz.

There are even some people (not necessarily election officials, yet) willing to come right out and put this fear on the record.

“Listen, I think both Cruz and Trump would have a similar impact on the party, neither of which would be very good. I am actually more concerned about Cruz than I am about Trump,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, a former senior leadership aide who is a columnist for The Hill.

Feehery added, “I think Cruz has made a reputation of relentless mendacity … I think he’s a demagogue and I think he’ll destroy the party. I think Trump is much more of a blowhard. But there’s not really a dime’s worth of difference between Trump and Cruz.”

Yet, there’s also a movement afoot (that I’ve noted here twice already) to portray Ted Cruz as a safe and rational alternative to Trump. I was alarmed today to see Jonathan Chait contributing to this meme:

…Cruz’s demagoguery is specific to a certain set of conditions — a world in which Republicans control Congress but not the White House — that by definition would not apply if Cruz won the White House. Unlike Trump, a bona fide free agent, Cruz has given his party no reason to doubt his convictions. If elected, a Cruz presidency would be functionally identical to a Rubio presidency. He would sign the most conservative fiscal and regulatory legislation that could make it through Congress, and appoint reliable movement conservative to the judiciary. Cruz would have more leeway to direct foreign policy, but he might, if anything, steer a more cautious path than Rubio.

All this is to say that Cruz’s irritating demagoguery has given him a reputation as a right-wing flamethrower somewhat out of proportion to his actual policy stances, which differ from those of other Republicans primarily on the margins. His party’s distrust rises in part from personal (and, hence, not entirely rational) considerations. Washington Republicans despise Cruz, but they could learn to live with him, and it’s entirely possible that they will need to do just that.

The presidency is a leadership position. A president is not only the top elected official in the country with responsibility for the Executive Branch and all its agencies, he appoints the judges, commands the military, directs diplomacy, and serves as the head of his political party. It is not “irrational” to distrust a potential president for “personal considerations.” I mean, was it irrational to worry about Bill Clinton or John Edwards’s marital fidelity? Would it have been irrational to argue that Anthony Weiner lacked the character you want in a party leader? If you think someone is an untrustworthy demagogue whose main legacy is “relentless mendacity,” and who “consistently sacrifices the mutual goals” of the party for “his personal enhancement,” is it really irrational to not want them to be your leader?

Imagine Ted Cruz on the stage in Cleveland accepting the nomination of the Republican Party. The last Republican president and his top political adviser hate him. Bob Dole, the 1996 nominee, says he doesn’t like him and strongly suggests that he won’t vote for him. The 2008 nominee thinks he’s a “wacko bird.” The Majority Leader of the Senate is still angry that he was called a liar on the Senate floor. John Boehner thinks he’s a jackass. All but one of his Republican colleagues in the Senate were so furious with him that they resorted to the unprecedented tactic of denying him a simple roll call vote. None of them think he can be trusted to care about their interests. Political strategists all over the place are on the record calling him a demagogue and a liar.

So, then ask yourself, “Could they learn to live with him?”

Yes, they may have to. But don’t expect them to allow it to happen without a hell of a fight.

At least with Trump, there are a few things people admire about him. Not so with Cruz.

Martin Longman

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