Why the GOP Establishment Wants Ted Cruz

Why the GOP Establishment Wants Ted Cruz
Sam Householder/The Elkhart Truth via AP
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With the pivotal Indiana presidential primary only two days away, and the decisive California contest still six weeks off, many Republican officials are already privately writing off 2016. Amid the wreckage of the turbulent 2016 nominating season, they still have a challenge in front of them: handicapping which of the two flawed finalists will cause the least long-term harm to their Grand Old Party.

The conventional wisdom has been that Donald Trump is the bigger menace than Ted Cruz. Certainly, several swing-state Republican senators up for re-election in November worry about The Donald at the top of the GOP ticket more than they fear the presence of The Ted.

For some, however, there are other benefits in nominating Cruz. These are not, let me hasten to add, factors Cruz would boast about during a debate with Hillary Clinton. All of them start with the assumption—one bolstered by mock matchups in the polls—that the former secretary of state will trounce either Trump or Cruz in November. But who do Republicans want to go down in flames with?

If it’s Trump, establishment Republicans can simply walk away from the carnage. They don’t have to vote for him; they don’t really have to vote for anyone. Jeb Bush tried to negotiate this delicate ground while talking Thursday with CNN correspondent Jamie Gangel, Jeb’s first interview since dropping out of the race and endorsing Cruz.

“I’m a Ted Cruz supporter because I want to support a consistent conservative that actually could win,” Bush said. “I don't think Donald Trump could beat the Democratic nominee.” He added that if Trump is the party’s standard-bearer, “we'll lose the Senate and we'll lose the presidency in a landslide.”

After Gangel noted that it didn’t sound like Jeb would vote for Trump, he parried by saying, “I hope I won’t have to be faced with that dilemma.”

“Do you think there’s a case to be made for Republicans voting for Hillary Clinton if he is the nominee?” she asked.

“No way,” Jeb replied.

But he didn’t commit to voting for Trump, either. In other words, there is a rationale for Ted Cruz that goes beyond the belief that Trump harms down-ticket candidates more. It’s that Trump presents good-government Republicans with a moral quandary—vote for Hillary or stay home. To Jeb Bush, and many other Republicans, this is an untenable choice. Ted Cruz presents a more manageable problem, one faced by voters many times before: hold your nose and vote for the proverbial lesser of two evils.

Okay, that’s one reason. Here’s a second. Ted Cruz has made the lives of congressional Republicans miserable. If he’s the Republican nominee in November, and he blows it against someone Republicans consider easy pickings, the spell will be broken. No more mindless filibusters, pointless government shutdowns, and headlong charges over the “Cliffs of Insanity,” a.k.a. show votes to defund Obamacare.

Republican regulars, you see, actually hate Ted. They have much more personal antipathy for him than for Hillary. They don’t want to hear Cruz’s voice again when this campaign over, let alone see him in the White House. “Lucifer in the flesh” is how former House speaker John Boehner described him recently.  “I have Democrat friends and Republican friends,” Boehner added. “I get along with almost everyone, but I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.”

And maybe, such Republicans hope, after he loses the presidency, Washington politics will lose its allure for The Ted. That brings up the final, and most interesting, reason that a cadre of the GOP establishment would prefer Cruz. His defeat might drive a silver-tipped stake through a pernicious theory that just won’t die among movement conservatives. This dubious idea is that Republicans have been losing national elections because they’ve been nominating closet liberals, squishy moderates, and fellow travelers instead of “true” conservative champions like Ted Cruz.

Cruz pushes this line often. It’s his main rationale for running. He was selling it as early as October 2014, less than two years after he arrived in the Senate.

“We need to look to history and what works and what doesn't,” Cruz said then, “and the one thing is clear is if Republicans run another candidate in the mold of a Bob Dole, or a John McCain, or a Mitt Romney … we will end up with the same result, which is millions of people will stay home on Election Day.”

“If we run another candidate like that,” he added, “Hillary Clinton will be president.”

This is not a new idea. It’s been around since Barry Goldwater’s time, and was proffered on behalf of Ronald Reagan in every national election from 1968 to 1984. It was even used in 1988, both for and against, two-term Reagan administration veep George H.W. Bush. It has sometimes been cited as a kind of mantra to justify losing. “In your heart, you know he’s right,” went the 1964 Goldwater slogan. After a campaign in which the Arizona conservative joked about lobbing a nuclear weapon into the men’s room at the Kremlin, Goldwater critics—including liberal Republicans—came back with clever rejoinders, including “In your head, you know he’s wrong” and “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

That’s how a wide swath of Republicans view Cruz. Undeterred, he’s now using the Dole-McCain-Romney argument against Trump. To be fair, questioning Trump’s conservative bona fides is no stretch. But as a thought experiment, the Republican establishment is looking at the other side of Cruz’s argument. What if Republicans nominate a candidate whose right-wing credentials are impeccable, let’s say a certain freshman senator from Texas? Suppose this arch-conservative nominee loses in a landslide. What then?

Their hope is that it would be the end of Ted Cruz, and the end of this fanciful notion that the Republican Party somehow isn’t conservative enough.

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

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