I’m not going to argue that Ted Cruz is a great option for the GOP. But between him and Trump, it shouldn’t even be a close call. In fact, many of the things they hate about Cruz would be completely irrelevant if he were to become president, or even their party’s nominee.
If you’re a party insider facing this choice, you have three main things to consider. First, which one of these candidates is more likely to win in November? Second, what would happen if either one became president? And third, if you do lose the election, what happens after?
On the first question, the truth is that we don’t know for sure, but there are strong reasons to think that both Cruz and Trump would be headed for big defeats. Besides being not exactly a charming guy, Cruz is an ideologue whose theory of the fall campaign is that if the party nominates a “true” conservative, then millions of conservatives who normally don’t vote will come out out of the woodwork and head to the polls. Cruz not only can’t sashay to the center in a general election, he wouldn’t want to. His theory is the one Barry Goldwater ran on in 1964, and most people who are not themselves hard-right ideologues think the result would be about the same for Cruz as it was back then. Even lots of Republicans agree on this.
And Trump? Despite some speculation that he could get crossover votes from blue-collar whites, I’ve yet to see any analysis showing that Trump pulls in voters matching that description who currently vote Democratic. That’s the essential missing piece. You can’t just say, “he’ll get those Reagan Democrats!”, because the truth is that the Reagan Democrats became Republicans years ago. Furthermore, Trump is uniquely unpopular among Latino voters, who are guaranteed to turn out in huge numbers to oppose him. That’s part of why he has by far the worst approval numbers of any candidate in either party.
What if either one of them actually got elected? Here’s where Cruz would be vastly preferable for Republicans. Trump, who doesn’t appear to have any sincere beliefs on issues, would likely uphold conservative positions on some things and flip on others, whenever he saw political or personal advantage in doing so.
Cruz, on the other hand, believes pretty much everything establishment Republicans do on matters of policy. As Lindsey Graham says, “if Ted’s the alternative to Trump, he’s at least a Republican and conservative.” Cruz’s arguments with others in the party have been over tactics. For instance, when he helped shut down the government, which many Republicans thought was foolish, the ostensible policy goal he was trying to accomplish was to defund the Affordable Care Act, which all Republicans agree is a worthy objective. On policy, Cruz is pretty much exactly where the party is.
And if he were president, Cruz would no longer be rebelling against the party establishment, because he’d be the leader of the party. The arguments that have consumed the GOP for the last seven years would become all but irrelevant with any Republican in the White House. President Cruz would deliver them exactly what they’ve wanted: ACA repeal, tax cuts, regulatory rollback, military spending increases, conservative judges, and so much more. The only question would be whether he’d develop carpal tunnel syndrome from signing all the bills a Republican Congress sent to his desk.
But Cruz actually winning is unlikely. So what if he were the nominee and lost? The party would be in a much better position than it would be if Trump ran and lost. The threat of a Trump nomination is that it could tear the GOP asunder. There may be an independent candidacy funded by conservative donors, or maybe even the start of a whole new party. Even if those things don’t happen, Trump’s nomination will likely cause all kinds of problems for down-ballot Republicans, and could deliver the Senate and maybe even the House to the Democrats, giving President Hillary Clinton the chance to accomplish who knows how many liberal goals during her presidency.
And even if Cruz were to lose the general election, that loss might actually do something to tame the party’s far-right wing. The conservatives who responded to Republican losses in 2008 and 2012 by condemning John McCain and Mitt Romney as moderate squishes could no longer argue that the path to the White House lies in finding an uncompromising conservative to be the nominee. An election with Trump leading the party could be dismissed as a unique case, but after three losses in a row, culminating in a defeat of the most doctrinaire conservative available, the party would have no choice but to change. The establishment’s position — that the party needs to reach out to minority voters, particularly Latinos, and give its message the kind of moderate sheen George W. Bush applied — would be more persuasive than ever. If nothing else, that would at least make it more likely that they’d be able to take the White House in 2020.
I understand that this isn’t exactly an inspiring vision. Nobody is going to excitedly make a sign reading, “let’s pick the guy whose loss will do the least damage!” to wave at a rally. But if their choices come down to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, it may be all Republicans can hope for.