Politics & Policy

Saving the GOP Might Mean Backing the Guy You Don’t Love (and I’m Not Talking about Kasich)

Cruz at a campaign stop in Overland Park, Ks., March 2, 2016. (Kyle Rivas/Getty)

The so-called Republican establishment is coming to the painful realization that Texas senator Ted Cruz may be its only hope to block Donald Trump from winning the nomination and Hillary Clinton from winning the White House. It’s not assured, of course. There are as many theories on how to emerge from this year’s Republican convention with an acceptable nominee as there are interpretations of what was going on in the TV show Lost.

But the most plausible path to a Trump-free, Republican-controlled White House is consolidation around Cruz. It’s a difficult conclusion for many people, and some might not get there unless Senator Marco Rubio loses the primary in his home state of Florida. And some might never accept Cruz, opting to bend the knee to Trump instead.

Many believe — correctly in my opinion — that Rubio would be the more competitive challenger to Clinton in the general election. But many also believe that the Hulk would be a great offensive lineman in the NFL. In other words, reality has a way of taking our personal preferences off the menu. If the math isn’t with Rubio, hopes and wishes can’t change that.

So that leaves Cruz.

(What’s that? What about Ohio governor John Kasich? Well, what about him? He’s simply running to be a spoiler or a kingmaker at the convention.)

The chief objections to Cruz from conservative and Republican insiders boil down to three things: 1) They just don’t like him. 2) They don’t think he’s electable. 3) They think he’d be just as much of a self-interested pain in the butt as president as he has been as a senator. Let’s look at all three in order.

Cruz will tell you that members of the “Washington cartel” don’t like him because he’s challenged the system and is a threat to K Street and so on. But that’s only part of it. His fellow senators don’t like him because they don’t like him. They say he’s arrogant and condescending, a terrible listener and completely uninterested in actually getting anything done that doesn’t further his own interests. They see him as a right-wing Arlen Specter — a notoriously difficult and self-absorbed senator.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. There are people who’ve known Cruz for years and hate him, and there are people who’ve known him for years and love him. I’ve found him perfectly pleasant and engaging in conversation. But pretty much everyone respects his intellect. Cruz is simply one of the smartest people in Washington.

And to that point, it’s worth noting that his theory of 2016 was correct. Cruz concentrated on making the right friends and, just as important, making the right enemies. He understood that the populist and working-class elements of the Republican coalition were ticked off at the establishment, and that capturing that anger would be the key to winning the primaries.

In fairness, Cruz helped to rile up those constituencies in the first place. But that’s politics.

He missed one thing: the black swan known as Donald Trump. Cruz brilliantly made his bed, and Trump leapt into it when Cruz wasn’t looking. 

Cruz, for all his apparent rigidity, is actually a remarkably nimble and capable politician.

Still, Cruz has been the only candidate to effectively respond to Trump and is arguably the only one that many Trump supporters could live with as an alternative.

The point here is that Cruz, for all his apparent rigidity, is actually a remarkably nimble and capable politician. The assumption that he couldn’t beat Clinton isn’t just belied by the polls, but by the fact that Cruz has shown a mercenary’s willingness to do what it takes to win (and I mean that as a compliment).

And then there’s the worry about a President Cruz. This is what I worry about least.

Unlike Trump, Cruz is ideologically and intellectually qualified to be president (and to pick Supreme Court nominees). Moreover, there are two things even Cruz haters can concede. First, it’s a given that a President Cruz would want to be re-elected. Second, Cruz’s “brand” hinges almost entirely on his fidelity to the Constitution. Mimicking Barack Obama’s disdain for the Constitution simply wouldn’t be an option for Cruz, and that means he’d have to work with Congress to get his conservative agenda passed.

This has been a year where a lot of good and honorable people have had to swallow their pride. The trough isn’t empty yet, and many more may need to belly up for seconds if they want to save the GOP.

— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. He can be reached by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2016 Tribune Content Agency

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