Ted Cruz strolled into the Indiana gymnasium with his two young daughters as country music blared and hundreds of small American flags waved. He had come to this iconic spot where the movie “Hoosiers” was filmed to rally his supporters after a dispiriting loss in a series of northeastern primaries.
“I’ve got good news for you,” the Republican presidential candidate said, his voice brimming with mellifluous optimism and resolve — a certain kind of political timbre uncorked by previous generations for “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” or “Ask not what your country can do for you.”
“Tonight,” Cruz intoned, sweeping his hand through the air and clenching his fist, “this campaign moves back to more favorable terrain !”
This is strategist-speak — not exactly the kind of rhetoric that’s going to be chiseled onto a presidential monument. It used to be that only staffers spoke this way: jargon-filled playbookese, such as the non-basketball use of the word “pivot” and non-transportation use of the word “lane.” They kept it behind the scenes to make sure a campaign seemed authentic, as though the candidate were too busy thinking big thoughts about the future to ever bother with reading his poll numbers or focus-grouping his talking points.
Lately, though, it’s not so much about showing a vision as showing your work. Ask not what your precinct captain can do for you, ask what you can do for his efforts to enlist undecided voters!
“You’re going to see Trump pivoting,” Ben Carson, a surrogate for GOP front-runner Donald Trump, said in a recent MSNBC appearance — classic strategist-speak for the formerly dark art of shifting one’s pitch to appeal to general-election voters after months of rallying the true believers.
Carson wasn’t speaking out of school. Trump himself has been blabbing about this strategy for months, insisting that when the time is right, he’ll just start acting “presidential.”
“I will be changing very rapidly,” he told Greta Van Susteren in a recent Fox News Channel interview. “I’m very capable of changing to anything I want to change to.”
Once, it was a gaffe to share your subtext out loud. Remember George H.W. Bush’s cue-card glitch, “Message: I care”? But now, thanks to a candidate who runs his campaign with the director’s commentary turned on, it’s part of the script.
Trump has been far more forthcoming about his plans as a candidate than, say, his plans as a president. (“Why do we always have to tell the enemy what our plans are?” he said recently about his plans to defeat the Islamic State.) He hits the airwaves to talk about the latest polls (or at least the ones he is doing well in), he accuses Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton of “playing the woman card” and he constantly brags about the size of his crowds.
But he’s far from the only one to show the seams of his campaign. When Carson made his own presidential bid in Detroit last year, he trotted out top members of his staff. (“We have our chairman, which is Barry Bennett, who never wears a tie but you’ll get used to seeing him,” the retired neurosurgeon said during the biggest announcement of his life. “And, we have our director of communications, Doug Watts, who does wear a tie.”)
Meanwhile, Scott Walker may have had trouble articulating his foreign policy positions, but he could easily tell reporters which Iowa counties might favor him. Even Mr. Grizzled Authenticity himself has not been immune. “The Democrats want to see the strongest candidate possible take on Trump or some other Republican,” Bernie Sanders told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell recently. “At this point, according to the polls, that is me.”
After every election cycle, there are books and symposiums by strategists offering their postmortem on what went right and what went wrong. In 2016, it happens in real time.
“I think Jeb [Bush] would have been the nominee had I not gotten in,” Trump told the New York Times. “But I was able to define Jeb early.”
Somehow, all this talk about the guts of a campaign is working. The Republican candidates who claimed to hate “process” stories about the mechanics of running for president are long gone, such as Marco Rubio, who eschewed talk of his “ground game” in favor of holding forth on “a new American century.”
That was the old way of doing things, pretending that you were above studying the map and creating a “playbook” for selling yourself. In “The Selling of the President 1968,” Joe McGinnis observed that successful candidates should “express distaste” for the “phony” process of promoting oneself on television.
“It would be extremely unwise for the TV politician to admit such knowledge of his medium,” he wrote. “The sophisticated candidate, while analyzing his own on-the-air technique as carefully as a golf pro studies his swing, should still state frequently that there is no place of ‘public relations gimmicks’ or ‘those show business guys’ in his campaign.”
That no longer seems to apply, at a time when the Republican front-runner is a reality television star and the actual strategists are busy building their brands and hoping to land a TV gig themselves. And frankly, in an off-the-rails race like the one this year, it’s exciting to chew over the polls and the map and the delegates. We’re talking about “delegate hunters,” as though the campaign were “The Most Dangerous Game.”
There is, arguably, a strategy behind all this talk about strategy. As Cruz and John Kasich place their last remaining hopes on the arcane mechanics of a contested convention, the likes of which most Americans have never experienced, they risk creating the perception that they “stole” the nomination from Trump — unless regular voters come to understand how the complex rules work.
And yet: They’ve already been talking this way for months. “I think three of the lanes are collapsing into one,” Cruz told Politico in October. “Which is, the evangelical lane, the conservative tea party lane and the libertarian lane are all collapsing into the conservative lane, and we’re seeing those lanes unify behind our campaign.”
Weeks later, Cruz let The Washington Post know his main motivation for running. A calling from God? His vision for building a better nation for his children?
“The single biggest reason we decided to run,” he said, “was when I looked at other candidates, all of whom I like and respect, I didn’t see a whole lot of candidates who I thought were likely to energize and mobilize and inspire millions of conservatives who were staying at home.”
Spoken like a true strategist.