Is Ted Cruz As Big a Jerk as Donald Trump?
And can he win over libertarian hearts and minds despite his culture war bloviation?
Ted Cruz's response to questions about the Planned Parenthood shooter last week was vintage Cruz: He deflected attention away from pro-life violence and toward transgender lefties.
Most poll watchers agree that Donald Trump will fade in January as the reality of the actual primary season comes into focus. The also agree that Cruz has been positioning himself to pick up The Donald's followers.
Which raises the questions that undergird my latest Daily Beast column: Is Ted Cruz as big a jerk as Trump and can he woo libertarians who are willing to vote for a major-party candidate?
Like Trump, whom he refused to criticize even gently until recently, Cruz is given to cheap and crazy culture-war talk that alienates him from socially tolerant and fiscally responsible people who otherwise might be willing to consider voting for him.
When he's not taking a bold stance against unisex bathrooms and other worldly abominations, Cruz is stoking fears about the enormous problem of creeping Sharia law in America, musing that "the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats," and counting (but not naming!) the dozen Harvard law professors he claims "believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government."
This sort of culture war crap can't be helping him with libertarians and centrists who generally dislike big government but aren't necessarily ready to sign on to Cruz's assertion that, "Any president who doesn't begin every day on his knees isn't fit to be commander-in-chief of this country."
Throw in his willingness to appear with Kevin Swanson, a pastor who advocates the death penalty for gays, and his staunch support of anti-gay-marriage country clerk Kim Davis, surely the only government employee conservatives have lauded for refusing to do her job, and Cruz's reflexive culture-war posturing will sink him among all but the most desperate GOP loyalists.
I think that's right. Cruz's culture-war persona isn't part of who he is—it's central to who he is. He can't go more than a few sentences without bringing up god or morals or some sort of related issue that is designed to demarcate whom the Elect is (a group which always includes Cruz, by the way). And he's more than willing to change positions depending on the political winds. Hence, he pushed for Trade Promotion Authority, even writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed with Paul Ryan. A month later he voted no. A few years back, he said that birthright citizenship was no big deal; now he's on the warpath for it. He's all for cutting government, except when it's the military (and then he's ready to jack spending $190 billion over two years without making corresponding cuts).
Most importantly, he is speaking directly and exclusively to the old part of the Grand Old Party. Say what you will about Rand Paul's presidential campaign, but the eye doctor is seeing clearly when he stresses that the Republicans need to bring in a wider, more varied set of members if it wants to move into the 21st century any time before 2100. Cruz doesn't seem to give a shit on that score.
Only a few years ago, after Mitt Romney's resounding defeat at the hands of a very beatable Barack Obama, the Republican Party at least flirted with the idea of reaching out to younger, more diverse, more socially tolerant voters in a bid to drag the party into the 21st century before it was too late. With Cruz, you get almost the exact opposite. His anti-immigrant bona fides are second only to Trump's, and his religiosity ("If the body of Christ rises up as one and votes our values, we can turn this country around," he told Iowa voters last month) is second to none.
A word to the GOP: You're not going to win many more elections (if any) by attacking gay marriage, pot legalization, and transgender people. And you're not going to win any general elections by vilifying immigrants, legal or otherwise. A majority of REPUBLICAN voters—56 percent!—think illegals should be allowed to stay and given a path to legal status. But you will succeed in alienating libertarians and centrists who dislike Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders by appearing to be incredibly hostile to anything approaching pluralism.