On Friday, the day after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) gave a well-received CPAC speechSen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took exception to Cruz’s indictment of previous presidential candidates as not standing “for anything”:

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) makes remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Maryland, March 6, 2014. Thousands of conservative activists, Republicans and Tea Party Patriots gather to hear politicians, presidential hopefuls, and business leaders speak, lobby and network for a conservative agenda, looking to Congressional gains in 2014 and a Republican president in 2016. REUTERS/Mike Theiler (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)  (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

“He can say what he wants to about me and he can say anything he wants to about Mitt,” McCain said, “but when he throws Bob Dole in there, I wonder if he thinks that Bob Dole stood for principle on that hilltop in Italy, when he was so gravely wounded and left part of his body there fighting for our country?”

“Bob Dole is such a man of honor and integrity and principle,” McCain continued. “I hope that Ted Cruz will apologize to Bob Dole, because that has crossed a line that to me leaves the realm of the politics and discourse that we should have in America.”

Dole himself then weighed in: “Cruz should check my voting record before making comments. I was one of President Reagan’s strongest supporters, and my record is that of a traditional Republican conservative.”

Cruz’s spokesman provided the following: “As he noted in his speech, the Senator greatly respects these men, particularly the heroic military service of Sens. Dole and McCain. Suggesting anything otherwise is just an unnecessary distraction. He will not hesitate to talk about substantive matters of conservative principle that are important to bringing Republicans to victory – even if others may disagree.”

Now Cruz’s original comments at CPAC could well be interpreted as criticizing those losing campaigns (“The one election that was a tremendous election was 2010 when Republicans drew a line in the sand. We said, unequivocally, we stand against ObamaCare, against bankrupting the country and we won in an historic tidal wave of an election. And then of course, all of us remember President Dole and President McCain and President Romney — now look, those are good men, they’re decent men but when you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.” (Emphasis added.)

That judgment I would say is unduly harsh. McCain’s campaign stood for winning the war; Romney stood for tax reform, for example. It would be more accurate to say that these candidates didn’t communicate their principles or connect with voters so they understood what conservatism would do for them. Cruz got in trouble — unnecessarily so — because he tried to impugn other conservatives’ lack of principles.

Cruz has gotten into trouble in circumstances like this when he (admirably, in our view) took on Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary for defense, but then went too far and lost credibility by insinuating Hagel could have taken money from the North Koreans. When a politician doesn’t use some restraint, a good argument or winning position can turn into an embarrassing episode.

Imagine instead if Cruz had apologized for the CPAC comment like this, “I want to apologize to Sen. Dole, for whom I have the highest regard; I got carried away with my friends at CPAC. Sen. Dole in his long years of service absolutely stood for and sacrificed for principles. What I should have said is that we have to make sure in a presidential race we get our conservative principles across to voters so we can win and govern well.”

Had Cruz done that — gone the extra mile to be gracious — he would have maybe scored a few points. As it is, this is a harmless error at this stage in the campaign. He nevertheless should take it to heart: Watch the hyperbole; in a presidential campaign every word is taken literally. Don’t insult great men.  Don’t gratuitously insult anyone. Cut your losses when you goof up. Show kindness and decency at all times.

Cruz gets in trouble with colleagues, and in this case, war heroes, when he suggests he is the only principled man in town. This was a major theme in the shutdown. It’s not true, and he really should be able to distinguish himself in ways other than deriding good conservatives with whom he differs as opportunists or weaklings. The chip-on-the-shoulder routine works when you’re trying to whip up the base against the “establishment,” but as a presidential candidate you have to appeal to both sides — and to make arguments that withstand scrutiny.

Americans want their presidents to be decent, honorable people. That in and of itself is not sufficient — or Dole certainly would have been president. But without character — loyalty, honesty, generosity of spirit and kindness — a candidate is unlikely to be embraced by a national electorate. We want our presidents tough — but not mean. One hopes Cruz takes this to heart.