To his credit, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) admits he is not a warm and fuzzy guy. In the town hall before Wisconsin’s primary, he acknowledged, “What I will say is I’m a pretty driven guy. That has pros and cons. I have always been a very driven guy.” In the October GOP debate, he offered, “If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy. But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home.”
Now it is true that the most likable candidate usually wins a high-stakes race. George W. Bush beat then-Sen. John Kerry handily on the “want to have a beer with” question. Ronald Reagan was the quintessential likable candidate; as an actor he knew how to engage the audience. But in not every election does the nation or a party pick the most congenial candidate.
Richard Nixon was not likable, but in 1968 he was offering what the country felt it needed. William Schneider wrote in 2000, “Nixon was no more likable in 1968 [than in 1960]. But he won that year because the country was in crisis. So what if he wasn’t such a nice guy? Voters wanted someone who knew what he was doing.”
So perhaps Cruz, as President Obama put it in 2008, needs only be “likable enough.” Frankly, if he wins the nomination, his expected opponent, Hillary Clinton, is herself one of the least likable politicians to run for president. Moreover, while Clinton has become no more likable as the campaign goes on, Cruz, however, has been improving over time. That, in part, is because he is consciously trying to be a unifier in the GOP. He no longer picks fights with popular Republicans and has even given up casting GOP Senate leaders as part of the “Washington cartel.” In addition, like many politicians, his wife and family help soften his image and show him in a different light.
It is also true that in assessing likability in a politician, one has to ask: As compared to whom? Cruz seems, if not exactly likable, at least infinitely more sane, stable, serious and calm than Donald Trump. If not for Trump as a comparison, we might not even notice that Cruz is respectful of women, eschews vulgarity and is capable of apologizing. These may strike one as unexceptional qualities, but compared with, Trump that makes him Albert Schweitzer.
Cruz also is modulating his speaking style. His fans love his dramatic orations, but many others do not, finding his tone artificial or even pretentious. When he leaves out the dramatic pauses and stops raising his voice at the end of every sentence — when he just talks normally as if conversing with someone one-on-one — he is exponentially more effective and, yes, more likable.
Cruz, then, is likable enough. Beyond that, however, Cruz might even think about using his perceived fault as an asset. The next president is going to have to make plenty of hard decisions, telling the public what it may not want to hear. (For example, we have to send more troops to fight the Islamic State.) In particular, a Republican when he attempts to assert American strength is always going to be labeled a warmonger. (Ronald Reagan was accused of wanting to start WWIII against the Soviets.) Any budget discipline will be characterized as evidence of hatred for the poor or some other deserving group. To pursue entitlement reform, a president will have to endure “throwing granny over the cliff” ads.
In order to make the tough calls, a president, therefore, especially a Republican, at some level has to not care what the press, the pundits and even the public thinks. (To his credit, Bush 43 persisted in the surge, knowing how unpopular it was because he realized defeat would be catastrophic.) You have to be indifferent, if not disdainful of, elite media opinion. You have to be willing to be disliked, even hated, to accomplish important and difficult things.
And who has a better claim to possession of this kind of emotional armor than Cruz? He’s become practiced at being reviled. (I know this sounds peculiar, but stick with this. Whether he should have provoked such a response and whether he was doing so for selfish ends is a different question.) Surely he has demonstrated a very un-political tendency — contentment with being criticized, even hated. Unlike so many other pols, he seems fully capable of not being liked. In fact, he seems to rather enjoy it. (Candidly, one of the problems that Sen. Marco Rubio faced was that he seemed too nice, and too afraid of alienating his supporters, which led to the perception that he cut and ran on immigration reform or ducked on the red line in Syria.)
I don’t suggest that Cruz brag about being unliked, especially as he is doing a good job warming up to voters. He should, however, stress that he is not going to do things (or not do things) to be popular or to avoid nasty barbs from the New York Times editorial page. He won’t be addicted to his favorable poll ratings. He is prepared to risk public disapproval if need be, or even his chance at reelection, if he must. In stark contrast to Clinton, who is allergic to swimming against the tide or getting too far out ahead of public (liberal) opinion, Cruz is not cowed by the threat of opposition from his own party or from liberals. Her ambition makes her cautious; his makes him brave.
In a presidency that will entail no good options, only less bad ones, Cruz’s temperament arguably is an asset. There is perhaps a benefit in not being a people pleaser. And if you want someone like that, it’s hard to think of anyone better than Cruz.