Why Ted Cruz Needs to Trust Republicans

The senior senator from Arizona urged this body to trust the Republicans. Let me be clear, I don’t trust the Republicans. I don’t trust the Democrats and I think a whole lot of Americans likewise don’t trust the Republicans or the Democrats because it is leadership in both parties that has got us into this mess.

So said Ted Cruz today.  This is not the first time he’s run afoul not only of Democrats—Harry Reid called him a “schoolyard bully” a few weeks ago—but also of his fellow Republicans, conservative allies (e.g., the Wall Street Journal editorial board), and others ostensibly on his side.  You can follow the links to various stories in this Ramesh Ponnuru piece.

Ponnuru, who has known Cruz for a long time, thinks his behavior is just fine.  Confronted Cruz’s violations of Senate norms, Ponnuru asks, in essence, “so what?”

The people of Texas didn’t vote for him because he promised to keep his head down in deference to his colleagues. No senator wins election that way. Presumably voters want senators who will be as effective as they can be in advocating for the views they campaigned on.

Maybe that’s a correct theory of the voting behavior of Texans, and maybe not.  Regardless, I don’t think Cruz’s problem is in Texas.

Cruz’s problem is that he may want to be president of the United States, reports the National Review’s Robert Costa.  And to be the Republican nominee, he’ll need the support of his Republican colleagues.  The 2012 election once again showed—and despite some skepticism—that it is very hard to win the nomination unless you’re preferred by a substantial chunk, if not the vast majority of, your party’s leaders (as was Romney).  Which is to say, it pays to be nice to your colleagues.  It’s no guarantee, of course: junior Senator Hillary Clinton kept her head down and played nice, and lost the nomination.  John McCain often irritated his fellow Republicans, but still mustered enough support within the party to win the nomination.

But nevertheless, Cruz’s strategy is risky.  Just ask Santorum or Gingrich, whose surges in the 2012 primary were met by deafening silence from GOP leaders (Santorum) or vigorous, on-the-record denunciations (Gingrich).

Ponnuru, for his part, acknowledges something like this:

Cruz’s Beltway critics were horrified anew last week on reports that he is thinking of running for president. If the past few months are any guide, he would try to build a majority starting with the most conservative end of the Republican primary electorate, and argue that the party needs to nominate a true conservative rather than an establishment favorite.

Many Republicans have tried this strategy since President Ronald Reagan left the scene. None has succeeded. The right end of the party invariably splits its support among several candidates, and voters in the middle of the party usually prefer someone with more experience than the right’s favorites.

Maybe Cruz has a different strategy in mind, or has a reason for thinking this time will be different. If he runs, he will have at least one thing going for him: He has a knack for making his opponents lose their wits.

Yes, “none has succeeded.” That’s a warning sign right there.  And the other warning sign is the reason why they haven’t succeeded, which is not quite what Ponnuru states.  It’s not that the conservatives can’t coalesce on a candidate and the middle prefers someone with “experience.”  It’s that many in the party are wary of nominating a strongly ideological candidate—a “severe” conservative, if you will—because they’re afraid that this candidate will lose in the general. And rightly so!  See Table 2 of this article (pdf) by John Zaller.

In 2012, as Lynn Vavreck and I show in The Gamble (pdf), only about half of Romney’s supporters were closest to him ideologically. The other half were closer to Gingrich or Santorum—that is, to one of the more conservative candidates.  But this other half also tended to believe that Romney was the only candidate who could beat Obama in November.  Their vote was about electability, not experience. Of course, Romney didn’t win, but Zaller’s finding suggests that a more conservative candidate would have done worse, other things equal.

Cruz’s path to the presidency—if he decides to run—must consist precisely of convincing “the middle” of the party that he’s electable despite the fact that he may be the most conservative member of the Senate (pdf).  To do that, he’ll need the support of his fellow party leaders to send that signal.  It doesn’t matter if he has “a knack for making his opponents lose their wits.”  His opponents will be busy nominating Hillary Clinton or whoever.  And it doesn’t matter whether, deep in his heart, he trusts Republicans.

What matters is whether he has a knack for making his fellow Republicans trust him.

[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore]

9 Responses to Why Ted Cruz Needs to Trust Republicans

  1. Michael Sadowsky May 23, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    I disagree. An anti-establishment campaign is Cruz’s best chance of victory in the primary. Such a strategy is certainly a long shot, but it’s the only strategy he can pursue. Cruz has already cast himself as far right, and he would never be accepted by the establishment. Additionally, the field is already crowded closer to the establishment. Rubio appears to be running a very establishment oriented campaign, and Rand Paul’s campaign occupies the space a bit to the right of Rubio. Since Rand Paul is also trying to appeal to some of the establishment, he is leaving room to his right, room that Cruz could occupy.

    Additionally, I don’t feel the lesson of 2012 is so starkly pro-establishment. It demonstrated that there continues to be strength in an establishment position, but also revealed that anti-establishment candidates can make headway. After all, both Newt and Santorum lead Romney in national polling at various points after the voting started. If the campaign had gone slightly differently at a couple points, there could have been another nominee. Perhaps Newt was doomed all along because of his history, but we’ll never know what would have happened if he had performed better in the pre-Florida primary debates. Santorum’s hypothetical path to the nomination is easier to see. What would have happened if he had performed just a couple points better in Michigan, and/or if Newt had dropped out and formed the “unity ticket”? In the modern GOP where electable establishment candidates are frequently beaten by unelectable Tea Partiers, it’s not impossible for an anti-establishment candidate to win the presidential nomination; it’s just difficult.

  2. John Sides May 23, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    Michael: Note that I never use the word “establishment” (though Ponnuru does). I don’t think that’s a useful concept. What Cruz needs to do is not appeal to some “establishment,” but build broad support across the network of Republican party leaders at various levels of government. And to the extent that he alienates his colleagues in the Senate, that task is much more difficult.

    My own take on 2012 — and this is elaborated in The Gamble — is that the situation for Romney was not that precarious. I’ll just quote what Lynn and I write there.

    “Moreover, Santorum’s and Gingrich’s weaknesses belied the possibility that one of them could have beaten Romney if the field had been winnowed sooner—leaving Romney face-to-face against a single more conservative candidate—or if Gingrich and Santorum had banded together to form a “unity ticket,” as apparently they discussed doing before the Michigan primary. (The effort foundered because the two camps could not agree who would be the presidential candidate and who the vice-presidential candidate.) Although we should always be careful drawing conclusions from any hypothetical alternative history, it does seem as though Gingrich and Santorum would have faced many of the same problems even in this two-man race.

    For example, without Gingrich in the race, Santorum might have won South Carolina but which other states thereafter? Santorum still would have faced a better-organized Romney campaign in Florida—the same challenge he faced later in 2012. Moreover, the things that made party leaders leery about Gingrich or Santorum from the outset—in Gingrich’s case, his checkered personal history and reputation within the party; in Santorum’s, his strongly conservative positions on social issues; in both of their cases, their chances of beating Obama—would not have changed in either hypothetical scenario. And these possible flaws would have been revealed in news coverage, and perhaps even more so, given the great scrutiny either would have received in a two-man race with Romney. Nor is it clear that a Gingrich-Santorum unity ticket could have defeated Romney. Indeed, the “unity ticket” would have presented the Republican Party the chance to nominate not one but two people who had few endorsements from party leaders, an underpopulated funding network, and—at the time of the “unity ticket” negotiations—few delegates pledged to support them.

    But could Gingrich or Santorum, or Gingrich-Santorum or Santorum-Gingrich, have won a few primaries, maybe even in Michigan, generated momentum, and then used this support in the electorate essentially to force party leaders into supporting them? Recent presidential nominations have shown that this is difficult. Nominees have not won purely on grassroots support alone. Moreover, given Romney’s lead in delegates and the effort and dollars that party leaders and donors had sunk into his campaign, even a Romney weakened by a loss in his home state of Michigan may have been preferable, certainly to the “unity ticket” of Gingrich and Santorum and likely to any other potential nominee, whom the party would have had to rush to the campaign trail very quickly.”

    Of course, these sorts of counterfactuals can never be resolved definitively. But, for what it’s worth, that’s our view. Perhaps there will be a primary where some candidate wins the nomination on momentum alone. But it hasn’t happened since…Carter, maybe? If I were Cruz, I’d ask myself, why make life more complicated? He doesn’t have to antagonize John McCain to keep his Senate seat. And if he really wants to be president, endorsements from his fellow Senators will be crucial — and Rubio and Paul hardly have anything locked up.

  3. Michael Sadowsky May 23, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    I agree that a unity ticket wouldn’t have guaranteed victory, and with a win in Michigan Santorum probably still would have lost. However, I think it’s still possible he would have won, and attempting a grassroots momentum strategy is Cruz’s best shot.

    I think you make a good point that attacking his fellow Republicans in public is probably a bad move. After all, when Gingrich made headway, he did so by attacking Democrats rather than Republicans. However, I don’t think it makes much sense for Cruz to tack to the center in order to appear electable. It seems hard to believe that many party leaders would ever choose Cruz because he is electable. He’s already made so many extremist statements that this may not be possible. At the very least I think it would be much more difficult for him than it would be for most other GOP senators.

    On the other hand, Cruz could be in a very strong position to fill Gingrich/Santorum’s shoes, facing much less competition to be the candidate of the Tea Party fringe. That role doesn’t require the backing of Republican senators. While grassroots momentum has never succeeded before, the sample size is small. Additionally, it’s possible such a strategy would be easier to accomplish now than it would have been several decades ago (given the recent success of fringe candidates in non-presidential primaries)

    However, maybe I’m overestimating the difficulty Cruz would face in endearing himself to party leaders. Do you think he could easily turn his image around so that he appears electable?

  4. LFC May 25, 2013 at 1:16 am #

    Prof. Sides doesn’t think “establishment” is a useful concept but proceeds to say that Cruz would have to “build broad support across the network of Republican party leaders at various levels of government.” That ‘network’ is the party establishment, isn’t it?

    Since a Cruz presidency would be an unmitigated disaster, I certainly hope he does everything that political scientists say he shouldn’t in terms of alienating party leaders, etc. Why a blog of any kind, except one committed to right-wing extremism and lunacy, would want to, in effect, give Cruz tips on how to become President is rather beyond me.

  5. ForkedTongue May 28, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

    Please do all you can to help Ted Cruz on his path to the Republican party’s nomination in 2016. When he wins five states, Those of us who care about the fate of the Republic will thank you.

  6. Caleb May 29, 2013 at 10:41 am #

    Uh, am I missing something? Cruz was born in Canada. How could he run for president?

  7. Jeff May 29, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    And he was born in Calgary which is really much more American than Canadian anyways:)

  8. Jeff Smith May 29, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    I agree with John’s piece, excepting one line in his comment: that Romney’s situation wasn’t precarious. I believe it was, though not in the sense that Santorum or Gingrich could’ve been nominated. I think that a loss in Michigan – or perhaps another large midwestern state or two – could’ve caused a mass establishment exodus from Romney to a draft of a Christie/Daniels type with Romney-like ideological posture minus the personal issues that made him so flawed. My conversations with Republican electeds indicate that there was extensive talk of such a possibility and that the very nature of Romney’s support – transactional, from people who just wanted electability, as John notes – would’ve made it a midstream switch plausible.