Ted Cruz is now ahead of Donald Trump in a GOP presidential poll of Iowa, where the Texas senator is campaigning hard. That leap-frogging is the likely reason that Trump insanely, desperately, and dangerously called Monday for a "complete shutdown" on Muslims entering the U.S.
But let's move beyond the proto-fascist in the GOP ranks and talk about Ted Cruz. Like Mike Huckabee before him, Cruz has a political style that resonates with Iowa's conservatives: emotional, low-church, slightly rebellious. Still, it is hard to predict Cruz's path forward, because it is difficult to think of a major party candidate more hated by his own party, Donald Trump notwithstanding.
Past enfant terrible candidates are rarely hated in this way. Ron Paul was treated as a funny curio. Pat Buchanan's revolt was partly mourned, as if he couldn't help it. Trump's has been greeted with consternation and some fear. But Cruz is greeted as a walking, talking outrage. He's treated as an offense in himself. And, it should be said, he seems to relish it. "I welcome their hatred," Franklin Roosevelt once said after being labeled a class traitor. It's easy to imagine Cruz feeling the same way about his political enemies.
Cruz has chutzpah. At a recent Republican debate, he got applause for castigating the debate moderators for trying to divide Republicans. Republican senators on that stage must have gagged; Cruz's whole career has been about dividing Republicans. He has spent the last several years trying to create a caucus in the House that is loyal to his school of high-risk, no-reward brinksmanship. He promises to defund ObamaCare when the Senate can do no such thing. Or argues that the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide did not really apply to the whole nation. This strategy burnishes Cruz's reputation among the Republican base, but it creates headaches for senators and for the Republican House leadership.
The distaste for Cruz goes far beyond just his divisive political strategy, or the perception that he says nothing, true or untrue, unless it is maximally self-serving. It goes to his oleaginous, hyper-moralizing personality, even the repulsively sentimentalized way he talks about the "Children of Reagan" who are taking over the Republican Party. Frank Bruni related in a column that veterans of the 2000 George W. Bush campaign learned to loathe Cruz, and that many of them would, under truth serum, admit to preferring Trump to him. Cruz's college roommate Craig Mazin is dragged before media to give amusingly nasty assessments of Cruz's character. "I did not like him at all in college," Mazin said, "...And, you know, I want to be clear, because Ted Cruz is a nightmare of a human being. I have plenty of problems with his politics, but truthfully his personality is so awful that 99 percent of why I hate him is just his personality."
Giving GOP leadership trouble normally doesn't trouble me. And I'm tempted to agree with Cruz on some things, like the perfidy of the Republican donor class. But last fall, Cruz was invited to speak at an ecumenical gathering of Middle Eastern Christians who were lobbying for support from Washington to help their embattled flocks (some of which face genocidal violence.) For reasons I still can't comprehend, Cruz decided to offer this tiny effort a political decapitation. He goaded the audience about its lack of support for the state of Israel and then accused them of being anti-Semites. And it is only more galling in that Ted Cruz knows the relevant history. And he knows that his evangelical audience in America is mostly ignorant of it. He knew how to get a rise out of both audiences, and raised his own profile doing it.
It was a moment so cynical and underhanded, I joined the unofficial anyone-but-Cruz caucus.
Still, as a pundit, I have to admit I'm intrigued by the premise of Ted Cruz. He is the embodiment of the GOP's on-again, off-again populist rhetoric. He seems to be running his campaign on the false wisdom about 2012, that there were millions of voters who stayed home because Mitt Romney wasn't conservative enough for them. This is a campaign that is aiming for glory or ignominy and won't settle for anything in between.
For any conservative who has wanted to see the leadership of the Republican Party horse-whipped, Ted Cruz looks like a gnarly weapon at hand. He is the revenge they deserve.