Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has a habit of complaining that Republicans just aren’t far enough to the right, which regularly rubs party leaders the wrong way. But at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Cruz seemed to annoy his Republican elders more than usual.
“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.”
The message wasn’t subtle: as Cruz sees it, Republicans lost in 1996, 2008, and 2012 because the party’s presidential nominees just weren’t conservative enough. If only they’d been further to the right, the argument goes, Democrats would have been in real trouble.
Because Dole is an elderly man with health concerns, Cruz has drawn fire from John McCain and others for going too far. The pushback is based on basic human decency – Cruz’s remarks, many in the party have concluded, were simply obnoxious.
And while that matters, it’s also worth considering Cruz’s argument on the merits, because the senator is arguably wrong in addition to being rude.
Cruz has spent quite a bit of time in recent months trying to convince Republicans that the key to national success is far-right candidates. The Texas Republican’s comments to Time last August still stand out:
“If you look at the last 40 years, the clearest pattern that emerges is when Republicans nominate a strong conservative as a presidential candidate, Republicans win. When Republicans nominate a candidate who runs as a moderate, Republicans lose. Now what is the conclusion of all the political consultants in Washington, looking at those last 40 years? We need to nominate a moderate. Because they’ve lost every single race for four decades.”
At a certain level, if we narrow our sample size, Cruz may have a point. Candidates like Dole, McCain, and Romney moved pretty far to the right to secure their party’s nomination, but if you look at their records in their totality, each were more mainstream than most of their GOP rivals at the time and each enjoyed quite a bit of support from the Republican establishment.
And since all three lost, it’s understandable that Cruz would tell far-right audiences, “See? Stop nominating anyone with even a hint of moderation.”
But Cruz is also playing a little fast and loose with recent history, playing up the evidence that bolsters his thesis while ignoring the evidence that doesn’t. George H.W. Bush won in 1988 and I have a hunch he wouldn’t pass any Cruz-backed litmus test. Twelve years later, his son was elected by promising to be a “compassionate conservative” who loved bipartisan cooperation.
Cruz also has no use for Nixon’s wins – his platform would appear rather Democratic by contemporary standards – or Goldwater’s landslide defeat. Indeed, Cruz believes Dems win when Republicans fail to “draw a clear distinction” and “stand for principle,” but Goldwater did both – en route to losing 44 out of 50 states.
There’s nothing wrong with Cruz looking to history to shape his thesis, but it’d be easier to take him seriously if he weren’t so selective about it.