Opinion

Ted Cruz's insane plan for winning the presidency

The Texas conservative is basically betting on time travel

Did you hear Ted Cruz is running for president?

Did you hear that he's perhaps the most conservative candidate in the race, and absolutely adored by a subsection of the base, which, according to conventional political logic, makes his candidacy both dangerous and doomed?

Most observers are torn between the idea that Cruz is running to boost his profile, knowing full well that he can't win the nomination, and the idea that he's delusional enough to think he can win.

I've actually argued that Ted Cruz has a path to the nomination. The conventional wisdom is that in Republican primaries, in the end, the mainstream or establishment candidate wins; that in the end, superior organization and fundraising prevails, and voters care as much about electability as orthodoxy.

My thinking is that the 2012 nomination, which seemed to confirm the pattern, actually broke it, because Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum split the anti-establishment vote. But together, they got more votes.

This means there are now more anti-establishment votes for the taking than establishment ones. One cause for 2012 was that the base intensely disliked the patrician Romney, but Jeb Bush can prompt a lot of dislike too. And unlike Romney, in a Bush-Clinton matchup, the electability argument works much less well. So the votes are there, and the circumstances are there. It's not the most likely scenario, but it's a possible scenario.

But this only begs the question: If Ted Cruz wins the nomination, what is his path to the White House?

Ted Cruz's Super PAC, helpfully, gave us an idea of his thinking, putting online a 51-slide presentation outlining their strategy. And it's a disaster.

One word of caution, though: This is a presentation intended for donors. Campaigns are more likely to tell donors what they think donors want to hear, than what they actually think. (Romney's notorious "47 percent" gaffe, for example, fell into that category.)

But regardless of whether it's the Cruz campaign's real strategy, the document is so bewildering that it merits mention even on the off-chance that it is.

According to CNN, Ted Cruz's strategy for winning the White House is basically: step 1, be Latino (I wish I was joking); step 2, find wedge issues to attack Hillary Clinton, especially on ObamaCare; step 3, turn out the base.

In other words, Ted Cruz intends to run in the general just as he ran in the primary: as a die-hard conservative.

In the era when George W. Bush's political machine was seen as undefeatable, many progressives were struck dumb with fear of the "turn out the base" strategy. It was probably overblown even then. It played to progressive prejudices: the notion that Republicans win elections through superior tactics, not popularity, and it helped delegitimize Bush. In reality, the only applicable election, 2004, was probably decided on national security issues — which already makes it an atypical election — that concerned swing voters, rather than turn-out-the-base "wedge" issues.

So even when the winds were at Republicans' backs, the strategy was questionable. Now it is, frankly, ridiculous. The GOP's demographic base is shrinking while the Democrats' is expanding. Supercharging the base in 2004 was questionable; in 2016, it is downright insane.

And the idea that Cruz's Latino heritage will necessarily help him with Latino voters is not credible. Republicans, often admirably, like to rail against "identity politics" but are sometimes all-too desperate to play that game when it suits them. The simple fact of the matter is that Latinos are voters like any other and they prioritize the same sorts of issues as everyone else. A candidate who shares their ethnicity might have more appeal — unless that candidate is a caricature of a far-right Republican, and Cruz's plan is explicitly to run as that (I trust they wouldn't much like a caricature of a far-left Democrat either).

Which brings us up to the fatal conceit of the Cruz campaign, one which is shared, sadly, not just in his camp: that the GOP's only problem winning national elections is tactics and strategy.

The main takeaway of the 2012 defeat among Republicans was that Romney was a bad candidate with a bad operation. But in many states, including purple states, Romney ran ahead of the generic Republican.

No, the problem the Republican Party has in winning national elections is that voters aren't buying what it's selling. They're not buying what it's selling because what it's selling is out of date; I mean this not in a progressive "right side of history" way, but matter-of-factly. Inflation, crime, welfare reform, high tax rates — these are the concerns of the middle class of 1980. And these are no longer its concerns because Republicans fixed many of them.

Today, middle class worries are about employment, education, health care, job security and stagnating incomes — and the current Republican agenda doesn't have answers to those issues. The GOP still has a chance: Voters aren't buying what they're selling, but they're only buying the Democrat brand by default. Voters reelected Obama not because they liked ObamaCare — they didn't — but because Mitt Romney's alternative was a great big deafening silence.

Democratic politics is actually pretty simple. If the broad middle class believes you are the one with their interests most at heart, you win. If you don't, you lose. And voters are not completely stupid, and so winning that battle requires actual policies (like wage subsidies or an expanded child tax credit, for example) instead of slogans. Today, those in the broad middle class cast ballots for the Democratic Party because they believe it has their interests at heart, even if they're wary of its solutions. They do not believe the same of the GOP.

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