We now know how big the Republican Party’s Donald Trump problem is: so big that some in the GOP have convinced themselves the solution is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
But be skeptical: Those polls probably exaggerate Cruz’s electability, which may diminish further if he gets the nomination, and the general electorate focuses on his ideology, even if his opponent is the unloved Clinton.
A lackluster economy and irritation at poor government performance dominate voters’ concerns, just as Cruz says; whether Americans think Cruz’s purist brand of conservatism represents the best way to deal with them is another question entirely.
“Abolish the IRS,” Cruz cried after his Wisconsin primary victory — repeating a promise that, whatever its merits, only 34 percent of Americans favor, according to a recent Gallup poll. The same survey showed that only 18 percent support Cruz’s plan to eliminate the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development.
As Gallup’s Frank Newport explained: “Our research . . . shows that only about a third of Americans favor limiting government to performing only basic functions, a third favor government being empowered to do all it can to fix problems and a third are in the middle between these two extremes. Thus, Cruz is simply fighting an apparent uphill battle — with the public taken as a whole — in his philosophical position that government must be scaled back.”
On taxes, only 51 percent of Americans think their federal income taxes are “too high,” according to Gallup — down 17 points since the start of the century. Meanwhile, 52 percent of Americans, including 29 percent of Republicans, agree with a proposition Cruz rejects: “Government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.” Only 45 percent favor Cruz’s 10 percent flat-tax proposal.
Cruz is on firmer ground, potentially, with Obamacare, “every word” of which he has sworn to repeal, and which has an approval rating that is still 12.6 points underwater, according to the RealClearPolitics average. However, a lot will depend on his ability to articulate an alternative.
The health plan he has sketched, based in part on individual accounts, may be difficult to sell given a fresh Pew Research Center finding that Americans, by a 51 percent to 46 percent margin, think universal health coverage is a federal responsibility; that’s a reversal of how they viewed the matter two years ago.
The big picture in American politics is partisan polarization, coupled with a discernible leftward shift of the political center on domestic issues, especially the social issues upon which Cruz has relied to fire up conservative evangelical Christians.
Though the Democrats’ advantage over the GOP in voter identification is not particularly large — eight points, according to Gallup — 24 percent of Americans now accept the no-longer execrated label “liberal,” up seven points since 1992. “Conservative,” meanwhile, held steady at 37 percent.
Also per Gallup, Americans by a 51 to 43 margin say government should not promote any set of values, rather than promoting “traditional values,” a reversal of the historical norm.
The backlash against gay marriage has proven astonishingly weak, limited mainly to state laws aimed at preserving religious objections to participation in same-sex nuptials, which Cruz has backed — but which most Americans seem to reject.
Heck, even on Cuba, Cruz, who opposes President Obama’s outreach to the Castro regime, is well to the right of most Americans: 54 percent now regard that Communist island favorably, according to Gallup.
In short, Cruz is offering America an updated version of the original 1980 Ronald Reagan package — small government, tax cuts, traditional values, strong defense — at a time when that package is no longer nearly as compelling to most Americans as it was 36 years ago.
Whereas Reagan offered a course correction from the excesses of the 1960s, which voters blamed on Democratic liberalism, today’s voters are still reeling from two shocks, the Iraq War and the Great Recession, which they associate with the Republican presidency of George W. Bush.
No doubt Cruz, despite the bombast and disruptiveness that even his Republican colleagues have found off-putting in the Senate, would be, for lack of a better word, a much less embarrassing GOP nominee than Trump.
His presence at the top of the ticket might enable Republicans to stave off a loss of the Senate and hold their large majority in the gerrymandered House.
And of course, anything, even a Cruz victory, can happen in politics, especially this crazy year. But anyone who thinks today’s America longs for a purist Reaganite should reflect on this: In every 2016 poll that pitted the two men against each other head to head, Cruz has lost, by an average margin of 9.8 points, to Bernie Sanders.