Last night, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) talked with The Atlantic’s Molly Ball about the 2016 race, and he offered an expected opinion. If given a choice between the Republicans’ top two presidential candidates – Donald Trump and Ted Cruz – Lott would prefer Trump.
As it turns out, Lott’s immediate predecessor as the Senate’s Republican leader had some related thoughts. The New York Times reported:
Bob Dole, the former Kansas senator and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, has never been fond of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. But in an interview Wednesday, Mr. Dole said that the party would suffer “cataclysmic” and “wholesale losses” if Mr. Cruz were the nominee, and that Donald J. Trump would fare better.“I question his allegiance to the party,” Mr. Dole said of Mr. Cruz. “I don’t know how often you’ve heard him say the word ‘Republican’ — not very often.” Instead, Mr. Cruz uses the word “conservative,” Mr. Dole said, before offering up a different word for Mr. Cruz: “extremist.”
Dole, who has endorsed Jeb Bush, added that while “nobody likes” Cruz, Trump could “probably work with Congress, because he’s, you know, he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.”
Some recent history might help put this in context. In 2014, Cruz was not yet an official candidate, but the Texas Republican nevertheless made a lot of public appearances before far-right audiences, laying the groundwork for his future campaign. His standard stump speech included this pitch: “All of us remember President Dole, and President McCain and President Romney. Those are good men, they’re all decent men, but when you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.”
Cruz’s point was hardly subtle – he believes these Republicans lost because they weren’t right-wing enough – and the rhetoric drew sharp rebukes from GOP insiders.
Not surprisingly, Dole heard about the rhetoric, and he didn’t appreciate it. “In other words, we weren’t right wing like he is, and I didn’t like that very much,” Dole said yesterday. “It kind of hurt, because we worked hard, we did the best we could. We are conservatives, we are traditional Republican conservatives.”
For Cruz, of course, it’s that “traditional” qualifier for which he has no use. Indeed, it didn’t take long for Cruz to seize on Dole’s criticism – and Dole’s kind words for Trump – as proof of how right he is about the state of the nominating contest.
Ted Cruz is trying to shape the narrative of the GOP race for president, suggesting on Wednesday night that the “Washington establishment” has determined Marco Rubio “can’t win this race” and is now “rushing over to support Donald Trump.”“We’re seeing the Washington establishment abandoning Marco Rubio and unifying behind Donald Trump,” Cruz told reporters in New Hampshire. “And we’re seeing conservatives coming together and unifying behind our campaign. And if conservatives unite, we win.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to say the establishment is “unifying” behind Trump – the New York developer isn’t exactly popular among party insiders – but Cruz’s broader point appears to be true: if the Republican Party’s leading officials have a choice between Trump and Cruz, most of them prefer the former to the latter.
Trump is neither liked nor respected by GOP insiders, but there’s no denying the fact that the party establishment simply detests Ted Cruz.
If this becomes a two-man race – still a big “if” at this point – don’t be surprised if this preference becomes even more pronounced in the late winter and early spring.
Postscript: I’d love to know more about Bob Dole’s take on Rubio. Let’s not forget that in 2012, Dole returned to Capitol Hill, pleading with Republican senators to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Rubio ignored Dole’s personal appeal and sided with far-right extremists who oppose the treaty for the most ridiculous of reasons. (Cruz was not yet a senator at the time, though we could probably guess how he would have voted.)
I wouldn’t be too surprised if Dole remembers Rubio’s vote.