The lazy conventional wisdom is that Ted Cruz is the new Barry Goldwater, doomed to suffer an electoral landslide defeat should he win the Republican nomination.
Not only is this wrong about Cruz’s general-election chances, it may compare Cruz to the wrong 20th-century Republican forebear. The better analogue for Cruz might be Richard Nixon, not in the crudely pejorative sense, but as another surpassingly shrewd and ambitious politician who lacked a personal touch but found a way to win nonetheless.
First, all the caveats. Obviously and most importantly, Cruz is not a paranoiac. He’s more ideological than Nixon. And he has none of Nixon’s insecurity, in fact the opposite. Nixon went to tiny Whittier College and resented the Northeastern elite; Cruz went to Princeton and Harvard and could be a member of the Northeastern elite in good standing if he wanted to be.
But Cruz is cut from roughly similar cloth. He wears his ambition on his sleeve and isn’t highly charismatic or relatable. In high school, he could’ve been voted most likely to be seen walking on the beach in his dress shoes. If Cruz wins the nomination, it’ll be on the strength of intelligence and willpower. He’ll have outworked, outsmarted and outmaneuvered everyone else.
Certainly, Cruz isn’t ascending on the basis of warm feelings from his colleagues. Cruz portrays his unpopularity within the Senate as establishment distaste for him as a lonely man of principle. But it’s a genuine personal dislike.
Not that Cruz cares. In fact, a key to what he has been able to achieve is his apparent immunity to the reflexive desire to be liked by people around you, a weakness to which almost all of us fall prey. Cruz is free of the peer pressure that typically makes all senators, at some level, team players.
Cruz is a Reagan Republican, although with considerable flexibility. When Rand Paul seemed to be on the ascendancy a couple of years ago, Cruz was a Reagan Republican with Paulite accents. When Donald Trump began to dominate, Cruz became a Reagan Republican with Trumpian tendencies. If Jim Gilmore were to catch fire, Cruz would presumably incorporate a Gilmoresque element into his platform.
Cruz penned an op-ed with Paul Ryan last April that was a ringingly stalwart argument for trade-promotion authority. Two months later, when a brush fire erupted on the right over “Obamatrade,” Cruz abruptly reversed course and came out against trade-promotion authority — he cited procedural reasons — and then opposed the underlying trade agreement as well.
Or consider immigration. Cruz used to make stirring professions of his support for legal immigration, demonstrated by his advocacy for drastic increases in the H-1B visa program. As soon as Trump attacked H-1Bs last August, the odds of Cruz changing on the issue were quite high. Sure enough, he now opposes greater legal immigration and wants a moratorium on H-1Bs.
The way insiders and the primary electorate view Cruz is vastly different. Where political insiders can see the gears whirring and hear the practiced lines in each Cruz speech, the average voter sees and hears only a smooth, pitch-perfect performance.
Is all the effort on Cruz’s part only in the cause of a 1964-style ideological blowout? No. The country’s too evenly divided for another Goldwater-style landslide loss, and Hillary Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate.
But Cruz has major vulnerabilities. He’s more ideologically defined than George W. Bush in 2000 or Barack Obama in 2008, and his current theory of the general election — that he need turn out only conservatives — is a comforting fable.
Marco Rubio and Chris Christie are both, in their own ways, more winsome, and it’s easier to see how each of them could pick off Obama states. But Cruz has always understood that you have to win the primary to win the general. He has set about to do it in truly impressive fashion. Whoever is going to beat him better know what he’s doing — because Cruz certainly does.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.