People have learned to assume that a Republican candidate is winking when he speaks on certain subjects. No, Jeb Bush is not actually going to repeal the minimum wage. He is not going to roll back equal rights for gay and lesbian couples. Enough voters understand a Republican candidate’s need to appease religious radicals that the candidates can remain credible despite some very dubious public positions.
For twenty years Republican candidates for Federal offices have survived on a kind of built-in duplicity. Victory depends on pandering to people who believe all those bullshit forwarded emails and Facebook posts. Electability in this context has a very special meaning. A Republican candidate becomes “electable” by appeasing base voters while convincing general election voters that he didn’t mean what he said. Needless to say, this institutionalized liar’s game has created tensions in the Republican Party. Ted Cruz is threatening to break the game.
The Tea Party was the first successful attempt by religious extremists and Neo-Confederates to start electing Republicans who share their wildest delusions. Mitt Romney was pandering. Characters like Joni Ernst, Rand Paul and Mike Lee actually believe what they are spouting. With the Presidential campaign of Ted Cruz, the whacko birds are coming home to roost.
Cruz has the potential to destroy the Republican Liar’s Game. If he does, the party alignments we have lived under since the Reagan Era will become unsustainable. No one but Ted Cruz is going to win the Republican nomination in 2016 by claiming to be the most conservative candidate. There is nothing to the right of Ted Cruz other than armed sedition. His campaign represents the end of the road in our race toward extremes. The party will have to either embrace its looniest ideas publicly, from top bottom, or explore a different approach to politics for the first time in a generation.
Political experts have largely dismissed the Cruz campaign as a stunt, placing him in a category with other Republican performance artists like Mike Huckabee, Herman Cain, and Pat Robertson. You can be certain that the Bush campaign isn’t making this mistake.
Cruz is a deadly serious candidate for two reasons. First, he is far more intelligent and capable than any of the party’s previous extremist candidates. Second, and more importantly, for the first time in more than fifty years we’re in a campaign cycle that favors grassroots appeal over insider organization.
His ideas may be crazy, but his previous opponents can tell you that he is sober, disciplined, and savvy. Whoever thinks they are going to beat Ted Cruz by watching him self-destruct needs to have a long conversation with Texas’ not-Senator David Dewhurst. This is the first time in the party’s modern history that a candidate from the extreme fringes of the far right possesses the personal and political capacity to run a fully credible national campaign.
Planning to wait for him to run out of money? Cruz isn’t going to need the usual collection of big GOP donors. He’s the Barack Obama of the right and not just because of the controversy over his birth certificate.
There isn’t a Republican alive with a more rabid, committed base of support. He probably won’t rake in the massive donations from the usual suspects, but he will dry up the well of small-scale support for everyone else, including support in the precincts. And this year, unlike in the past, that pool of grassroots support is likely to decide the nomination.
For the first time since 1964, the party is entering the primaries without a presumed nominee. The most precious resource in Republican Presidential politics is organization. Unlike the Democrats who possess a massive patronage machine that places boots on the street in any campaign, Republicans always struggle to man the precincts. That struggle is particularly difficult for a new candidate seeking the nomination for the first time.
That’s why the party almost always nominates the guy who finished second last time. The presence of a standing organization, thousands of electors, county party chairs, volunteers and other critical elements of support spread across fifty states is crucial to success but takes time to build. That’s why McCain outlasted everyone else in 2008 even though much of the party base despised him. That’s why Romney won in 2012.
No one has this advantage going into the 2016 campaign. In 1968 and 2000, party leaders plugged that gap by uniting around a candidate early. Bush and Nixon started their nominating campaigns with an almost insurmountable lead. That hasn’t happened this year. No candidate has broad enough appeal to dominate the race and no organization inside the party is strong enough to press their will.
This race is open. The base will pick the nominee.
If the base will pick the nominee then it’s hard to imagine how anyone has better odds than Ted Cruz. He is lined up with the base on every single issue to the farthest possible extent. He doesn’t have to apologize, explain or dodge on any issue that matters to them. Never once has Cruz compromised his “principles” to make anything function properly. Here is a man who has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he will do what the base wants no matter how stupid or catastrophic it may be.
A Cruz candidacy does open up new possibilities for a more rational Republican future. McCain’s 2000 playbook would work like a dream in this scenario. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single Republican candidate who is positioned to run that kind of campaign. They have all set themselves up for a run to the far right. It’s too late for any of them to pull back.
Other candidates will be forced to claim that they agree with him on almost every issue, but that they are more “reasonable” than Cruz. They will have to convince primary voters that they are more “electable” than Ted Cruz. They will have to convince a frothing grassroots base that their methods of achieving those policies will be more “effective.” They will have to play the Republican Liar’s Game.
Maybe it will work, but the Cruz campaign probably breaks the game.