We’re now counting down the days until the Iowa caucus, and Ted Cruz, who began surging in that state’s polls late last year, has been the subject of some serious last-minute attacks. These have come from Donald Trump, of course, and Trump supporters such as Sarah Palin, but also from members of the Republican establishment, ranging from Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who said that he hopes Cruz does not win his state’s caucus, to former Kansas senator Bob Dole, the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, who thinks that the party would be better off nominating Trump.
Branstad, to his credit, has a substantive objection. Cruz is a longtime critic of ethanol subsidies, and even introduced a bill, in 2013, that would have eliminated the Renewable Fuel Standard. From a non-Iowan perspective that is one of the most admirable things Cruz has done in Congress: the practical effect of the RFS has been to create an artificial demand for ethanol. To Branstad’s point, however, Cruz’s support for a market-based approach to energy production would adversely affect Iowa, at least in the short term; nearly half of the state’s corn goes into ethanol production. And it’s hard to fault the incumbent governor of Iowa for being dogmatic in his policy preferences on the subject, although I hope Iowa’s leaders are also aware of what economists call the ‘resource curse,’ and its long-term effects on states like West Virginia and Kentucky. Corn is a renewable resource, which is not the case with coal, of course; but insofar as the market for Iowa’s corn is contingent on government policies, the state would be better off, over the long term, with a more diversified economy.
The other Republicans taking shots at Cruz this week, however, have mostly offered vague criticisms of his character, or speculative analyses of his electoral prospects. Concurrently, a number of Republican leaders have come out with lukewarm compliments about the national frontrunner. Dole is one of the few who has explicitly argued that Trump would actually be a better nominee than Cruz, but a number have implied that the two are more or less equivalent in electability or suitability.
It’s not entirely clear to me what’s going on in these smoke-filled rooms, but I suspect that there are several factors at work here. Some members of the Republican establishment may see Trump and Cruz as equally unpalatable. Others, perhaps, are focused on Trump’s standing in the national polls, and have become convinced that his nomination is inevitable. And some may be attempting some kind of shenanigans. I’ve seen some speculation from Cruz supporters that one of the other candidates–Jeb Bush, specifically–is trying to set the stage for a final showdown between himself and Trump, mano a mano. Similarly, I’ve heard a number of conservatives theorize that the open opposition to Cruz reflects a widely held belief, among the Republican establishment, that it would be better to nominate Trump, and straggle through four years of a Clinton presidency, than to hand the reins of the party to Cruz, whose intelligence and competence make him a threat to the powers that be.
All of those lines of reasoning strike me as insane, for reasons I laid out on Twitter earlier today, in a series of 18-tweets that my friend Greg Dworkin kindly aggregated on Storify. The short version, in case 18 tweets is too much, is as follows: If Trump is the Republican nominee, he would have at least some small chance of winning the general election—especially, I suspect, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. And a Trump presidency, in my view, would be catastrophic for the country, perhaps the world. Cruz, meanwhile, is the only Republican running who has a provable ability to cut into Trump’s support. He, rather than Clinton, is America’s best bulwark against a Trump presidency. And although I realize many Americans don’t like Cruz, he is certainly not worse than Trump.
So Republicans currently attacking Cruz, in my view, should be more judicious. It’s one thing to run a “Hail Mary” when you’re only putting yourself at risk. Any candidates and operatives doing so now, on the premise that Trump will ultimately be defeated by someone more suitable, are jeopardizing the country. That is profoundly irresponsible. And Republicans, in my view, can’t justify any such strategies by arguing that Cruz is ultimately just as sinister or potentially dangerous. He’s not.
I say all that as a commentator who has been wrong about plenty of things—but one who has not, unfortunately, been wrong about Trump thus far. As I wrote in August, when his status as frontrunner struck most conservative leaders and analysts, as a notable but transitory embarrassment: “Republicans are starting to get seriously nervous about their Trump problem, without fully understanding the nature of the problem, or its severity.”
I also say all that as a commentator who has been pretty darn prescient about Cruz. In March of last year, the day after he announced his campaign for president, I laid out what his strategy would be, and warned the country that it could work: “The campaigns of many a previous GOP contender have died on his chosen field, but there are reasons to believe he might—just might—be better positioned for victory.” Several months later, while being willfully obtuse about Rick Perry’s prospects of winning the presidential nomination, I nonetheless listed Cruz among the four other contenders with a plausible shot at being the standard-bearer.
And for that matter, in the profile that appeared on the February 2014 cover of Texas Monthly, I made it clear that Cruz was considering running for president, as soon as this year. He had told me as much the previous October:
We were interrupted as I went through the security checkpoint at the entrance to the Capitol. Cruz paused until I had been cleared, then jumped in exactly where he had left off.
“I don’t think we’re there yet, but there is an urgency to these fiscal and economic issues unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
“That reminds me of what President Obama used to say during the primary in 2008, when people asked him why he was running for president after only a few years in the Senate,” I said. “He would say, ‘There’s a thing called “too late,” and that hour is almost here.’ ”
We stared at each other for a moment.
“I didn’t know he said that,” Cruz said innocently.
“I thought it was remarkable,” I said. “Especially in a primary.”
For the first and last time since I began interviewing him, in July, Cruz said nothing at all in response.
It was during the course of writing that profile that I came to understand what I think of as “the Cruz code”: the experiences and character traits that underlie his thinking and drive his actions and rhetoric. Since then, I’ve found that this understanding has helped me explain his reasoning, and even predict his behavior, time and time again. The fact that I cracked the Cruz code several years ago is one of the main reasons my subsequent commentary on his presidential campaign has been oddly accurate. It’s also why I’m able to say, with confidence, that Cruz is far less alarming as a potential president than his critics believe, or would like you to think.
And frankly, it’s been nice, as a political journalist, to have started the election cycle with such a good sense of who Cruz is, and what drives him. It’s saved me from having to spend months trundling around Iowa, freezing, forlorn, and trying to make sense of the man. It’s allowed me to lounge in Austin, waiting for intrepid reporters to file their dispatches from the road; I’d like to take a special moment to recognize the Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek, who has emerged as an absolute star of the 2016 traveling political press.
Next week, though, I will be in Iowa to watch events unfold. I expect things will culminate in a caucus victory for Cruz, whose many critics should take a moment to recognize that he’s already far outperformed the expectations of those who were dismissing him, three years ago, as nothing more than a “whacko bird.” And the time has come for me to let the rest of the world take a look at the user’s manual I’ve found so helpful. So mark your calendars for next Tuesday: here at Texas Monthly, we’ll offer you ten rules for making sense of Ted Cruz.
In the meantime, for those who haven’t already: read the aforementioned profile, “The Man in the Arena.” It holds up. And it contains the answers to some of the questions Americans are currently wrestling with. Would Cruz’s nomination result in “cataclysmic” losses, as Dole warns? No one can say for sure, but it occurred to me back then to ask if he minds losing a fight:
“Not at all. If you never lose a fight, then you’re not taking on anything of consequence or anything difficult. I’m a big believer in Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech—which, indeed, for years has hung on the wall of my office—about the man in the arena whose face is marred by blood and sweat and who may know victories or defeats but is actually fighting to make a difference.”
As we headed up the Capitol steps, I realized that Cruz’s response to the previous question reminded me of something I had mentally summarized as the Barry Goldwater scenario—the prospect that Cruz could be the kind of Republican who could win the party’s presidential nomination but alarm voters in a general election, just as Goldwater had in 1964 against LBJ.
“If you had a Goldwater scenario, that would be okay with you?”
Read on. And return on Tuesday.