via The Economist (November 27, 2015)
Ted Cruz, a firebrand Republican, peddles a self-serving myth about presidential contests.
THE presidential candidate who has most harmed American politics this year is Donald Trump, a bully who has prospered by inciting rage. Yet from the narrower perspective of the Republican Party, the most dangerous candidate of the 2016 pack may just be Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who is rising in the polls by telling conservative activists a seductive but misleading story about how their party wins elections.
Since launching his presidential run, the 44-year-old Texan has built his campaign around a simple pitch: assuring the most conservative third of the Republican electorate, from born-again Christian voters to hardline members of the Tea Party, that they form a natural majority of the conservative movement, and indeed would decide general elections if they would only turn out and vote. In his telling, this stirring truth frightens a cowardly Republican establishment in Washington, which urges conservatives to run to the middle as “Democrats-lite”—whereupon, Mr Cruz argues, “We get whipped.” By way of proof, the first-term senator informs Republican crowds that in 2012, when the party nominated Mitt Romney, roughly half of all born-again Christian voters and millions of blue-collar conservatives stayed home.
New polls show Mr Cruz rising to second place behind Mr Trump in Iowa, which will hold the first contest of the presidential primary season on February 1st. Much of his surge is at the expense of Mr Trump’s fellow-outsider, the retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Dr Carson, a devout Christian whose memoirs are a staple for church book-clubs and home-school curriculums, led some Iowa surveys in October. But the doctor has been hurt by amateurish responses to the Paris terror attacks, including a breezy suggestion that a “great nation” like America should not be “afraid” to shoot down Russian planes over Syria, if need be.
Prayerful Republicans have won Iowa in the past and faded soon afterwards, it is true. But Mr Cruz sees openings. The 2016 presidential primary calendar is front-loaded with conservative, pious states, many in the South, allowing Cruz strategists to dream of swiftly dominating the “very conservative” lane of the race, while establishment rivals squabble among themselves. And as Mr Trump’s campaign has taken a more thuggish turn, Mr Cruz has gingerly distanced himself, saying that Republican candidates should remember that “tone matters”. What Mr Cruz will never do is criticise Mr Trump’s angriest supporters, for he hopes to inherit them one day. Instead he presents himself as angry America’s champion in Washington. He calls Barack Obama “an apologist for radical Islamic terrorism”, and has challenged the president to debate the wisdom of admitting Syrian Muslim refugees to America, a plan that Mr Cruz calls “lunacy”.
On November 20th Mr Cruz and six Republican rivals attended a presidential forum in Des Moines hosted by the Family Leader, a social-conservative outfit. A blizzard did not stop 1,200 locals from attending the hustings, which saw the politicians ranged around a mock Thanksgiving dinner table. The Family Leader’s boss, Bob Vander Plaats, set the tone by telling the gathering that “Satan was trying to disrupt our plans tonight” with the snowstorm and other wiles, but that this merely proved that the meeting would be “something special”. The crowd responded warmly to Mr Cruz, who offered stories about religion’s importance in his life, scorn for Mr Obama and exhortations for Christian conservatives to defy “Washington” and unite around a single candidate, or as he put it: “If the body of Christ rises up as one and votes our values, we can turn this country around.”
On paper, Mr Cruz makes an unlikely warrior against elitism. Before entering Texas politics, he was a debating champion at Princeton and a star student at Harvard Law School, later securing a high-flying post as a clerk at the Supreme Court. His wife, Heidi, worked at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, then for Goldman Sachs, a bank. Supporters are unfussed. They praise Mr Cruz as a “fighter” who battled Democrats and also his own party leaders in Congress, notably when he forced a government shutdown in 2013 in what he called a bid to derail Obamacare. Fans do not care that other Republican senators angrily call the shutdown a doomed scheme whose purpose was to cast Mr Cruz as a grassroots hero. To the grassroots, being disliked in Washington is a character reference.
John Wacker, a manufacturing engineer, recalled being reluctant to put out campaign signs for Mr Romney in 2012 and for the Republican nominee in 2008, Senator John McCain. “They didn’t inspire me,” Mr Wacker explained, before praising Mr Cruz’s “charisma”. Several at the forum relished the prospect of the senator in a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton. “He’d eat her for lunch,” growled David, a campaign volunteer who declined to give his last name, citing his distrust of the press. As for Mr Vander Plaats, his organisation will endorse a candidate before Christmas. But he predicts in a telephone interview that Mrs Clinton is beatable “if we can choose someone who can inspire our base”, adding: “When we choose the mushy middle, we lose.”
Remember Barry Goldwater? He lost 44 states.
Alas for Cruz fans, the senator’s story about a Republican voter strike in 2012 does not add up. Turnout fell among lots of groups in 2012, some of them Obama-friendly. Moreover, turnout actually rose in some of the most closely-fought states. Voting rates also remained pretty healthy among white Protestant evangelicals, who made up one in four of all voters according to exit polls, though they account for only 19% of the population. Conservative Cruz fans may not care, for now. His fable about how elections are won flatters them, after all. As Mr Cruz beamed in Des Moines: “The men and women in this room scare the living daylights out of Washington.” But it is a fable: no Republican has won the White House without hefty moderate support. Mr Cruz is a clever and eloquent man. All the more reason to beware him.