Why Ted Cruz Needs a Lesson in GOP History

Why Ted Cruz Needs a Lesson in GOP History

By Carl M. Cannon - December 15, 2013

A week after the conservative-led government shutdown that relegated the Republican Party to the fringes of polite society—at least according to the establishment media—but which actually merely delayed widespread outrage at Obamacare’s abysmal rollout, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz flew to Des Moines.

Iowa is a long way from Cruz’s home turf, and even farther from Washington, D.C., but it’s the state that holds the first voting in the quadrennial presidential nominating process. Sen. Cruz is apparently contemplating that calendar, and after his semi-filibuster on Obamacare funding helped shut down the government for more than two weeks, he was the flavor-of-the-month in conservative circles.

The Des Moines event was the Iowa Republican Party’s annual Reagan Dinner. Cruz was the headliner, and he made sure to glorify the Gipper.

“We’re facing a new paradigm in politics … the rise of the grassroots [and] it has official Washington absolutely terrified,” Cruz said. “This new paradigm has been beta-tested, unlike the Obamacare website. It was beta-tested in 1980 with the Reagan Revolution and it pulled this country back from the brink.”

I’m not certain what that means, but I’m pretty sure grassroots politics didn’t first blossom on these shores 200 years after George Washington was leading the Continental Army in battle. Meanwhile, Cruz has been making even more dubious historical claims, of the sort that ought to concern anyone who wants to see a Republican in the White House.

“The clearest pattern that emerges is when Republicans nominate a strong conservative as a presidential candidate, Republicans win,” he says. “When Republicans nominate a candidate who runs as a moderate, Republicans lose.”

Usually, Cruz prefaces that assertion by placing it in the last 40 years, which is convenient, if misleading. The success of the modern Republican Party can be traced to 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower emerged as the choice of East Coast establishment against Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, a conservative so fierce in his opposition to the New Deal that he earned the sobriquet “Mr. Republican.”

Eisenhower’s presidency elevated his vice president, Richard Nixon, who ran in 1960 as a conservative, narrowly losing to John F. Kennedy. Four years later, with Kennedy martyred and Lyndon Johnson in the White House, the Democrats prevailed again—this time against Barry Goldwater, whose fiery brand of conservatism dominated the campaign and spooked the American people.

In fairness to Goldwater, voters simply weren’t going to choose to have their third president in 12 months. But noting that no Republican could have won that year is not the same as saying the GOP nominated its most competitive candidate. In his convention address in San Francisco, Goldwater assured his landslide defeat by asserting that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

That brings us to 1968, when Richard Nixon was nominated again, this time running as the pragmatist who first dispatched challenges from two more liberal Republicans, George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller. Not trusting Nixon much more than they did Romney or Rocky, however, movement conservatives urged California Gov. Ronald Reagan to run, and rallied behind him when he did.

Reagan came closer than many realize to winning the 1968 nomination, and Nixon won the presidency campaigning as a peace candidate, of all things. In 1976, the Reagan challenge was again rebuffed, this time by an incumbent president, Gerald Ford, who lost to Jimmy Carter.

So Ted Cruz is correct, I suppose, at least insofar as 1976 is concerned. In 1980 and 1984 Reagan won landslide victories, but the 1988 contest that Cruz believes was a face-off between the conservative George H.W. Bush and the more moderate Bob Dole was not an ideological battle. Actually, the most fiscally conservative candidate in the field was Jack Kemp.

Dole finally got his chance in 1996, besting a weak field in which Lamar Alexander was probably the most moderate, and with Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan, and Steve Forbes carrying the right-wingers’ water. Dole lost to incumbent President Bill Clinton. I covered that race, and until Ted Cruz came along, I never heard any Republican suggest that Gramm, Buchanan, or Forbes could have beaten Clinton—including Gramm, Buchanan, and Forbes.

Four years later, George W. Bush bested his main challenger, John McCain, and Bush became a two-term president. But Dubya didn’t win the popular vote in 2000, a benchmark McCain might have attained. We’ll never know, but when self-styled 21st century Reaganites invoke their hero’s name, they might want to consider Reagan’s 1984 campaign against Walter Mondale.

Reagan didn’t eke out a 49 percent plurality, as Bill Clinton did in 1996, or a 51 percent win, as Bush and Obama did in 2004 and 2012, respectively. He won 59 percent of the popular vote while carrying 49 states. He got virtually all the Republican votes (after expanding the GOP itself), most of the independents, and millions of moderate Democrats.

So that’s the blueprint, and it didn’t happen by accident—and it certainly didn’t happen by constructing the narrowest possible ideological appeal to voters. Cruz understands this, at least in theory, because he often says Republicans must sound more “aspirational,” which is to say, more Reaganesque in their appeals. But that’s not an easy trick to pull off.

In 2012, Rick Santorum, the last movement conservative standing in Mitt Romney’s unhappy march to the nomination, told Iowa Republicans that when it came to drawing the contrast on Obamacare, Massachusetts’ “Romneycare” program made Romney the worst standard-bearer Republicans could choose. It was a valid point, one that Santorum promptly undermined by doing things like telling New Hampshire high school students (who couldn’t vote anyway) that he wasn’t cool with contraception. That’s not something Ronald Reagan would have done. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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