Texas Senator Ted Cruz has a powerful ability, once thought to be reserved for the Men in Black. He can say something old and convince people that it's new. On Monday, for example, Cruz wrapped a speech at the Heritage Foundation's two-day policy summit and was asked to react to news that Mitt Romney was working over his old network and thinking about a third presidential bid.
"There are some who believe that a path to Republican victory is to run to the mushy middle, is to blur distinctions,” Cruz said. “I think recent history has shown us, that’s not a path to success. It doesn’t work. It’s a failed electoral strategy. I very much agree with President Ronald Reagan that the way we win is by painting with bold colors and not pale pastels."
This was almost precisely what Cruz had been saying for months, whenever asked about the future of the party. The Romney angle was new, but the rest was old. From Dec. 17, on Fox News's Hannity:
Jeb Bush is a good man. I think he did a good job as governor in Florida. He's indicated he's thinking about this and he will have to make a decision in the next couple months. And I think we will have a robust national discussion about the direction for the Republican Party and the direction for the country. Sean, you and I have talked about before that I believe the only way we win in 2016 is if we follow Reagan's admonition, if we paint in bold colors and not pale pastels, that if we continue to run to the mushy middle that the same voters that stayed home in 2008 and 2012 will stay home again and we will not win.
From Nov. 3, 2014, to the Washington Post:
Of Jeb Bush, for instance, Cruz said he likes and respects him, "but I think we have seen election after election that when Republicans fail to draw a clear distinction with the Democrats, when we run to the mushy middle, we lose."
"At some point," Cruz continued, "after Gerald Ford and Bob Dole and John McCain and Mitt Romney... we shouldn't keep making the same mistakes over and over again."
From October 30, 2014, on CNBC's Squawk Box:
If we run another candidate in the mold of a Bob Dole or a John McCain or a Mitt Romney, we will end up with the same result, which is millions of people will stay home on election day, which is what happened for all three of them... Republicans win nationally when we draw a clear distinction; when, as Reagan put it, we paint in bold colors, not pale pastels. We lose - and this is true over and over again - when we move to the mushy middle and we muddle the differences. What happens - and this happens over and over and over again - is millions of people stay home.
And so on. The point is that the conservative case against Romney or Bush, or anyone in the "establishment," is frozen. The argument relies on a player that Cruz never mentions—George W. Bush. From Nov. 2004 to Nov. 2012, the population of the United States rose from around 293 million to around 316 million. And yet neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney matched the total number of votes Bush received in 2004—62 million. Romney fell more than a million votes short. In the 2004 race, George W. Bush won Ohio with 2.86 million total votes. Eight years later, Obama took it with just 2.83 million votes.
Conservatives noticed. In the days after Romney's 2012 loss, plenty of them argued (based on incomplete vote totals) that the election could have been won if their candidate brought out the base.
"We didn't lose the election on Tuesday because we're pro-choice or pro-life; we did not lose the election because single women hate us and don't like us," said Rush Limbaugh in a post-election broadcast. "That's not why we lost. We might not be getting a majority of those votes, but when three million of our own people don't show up, it doesn't matter who on the Democrat side we're not getting."
Sean Trende, one of the smartest conservative observers of demographics and vote data, called this the phenomenon of the "missing white voter." In his post-election story, he produced a map of Ohio and surmised that the neglectful voters went cold on Romney for cultural reasons.
"My sense is these voters were unhappy with Obama," Trende wrote. "But his negative ad campaign relentlessly emphasizing Romney’s wealth and tenure at Bain Capital may have turned them off to the Republican nominee as well. The Romney campaign exacerbated this through the challenger’s failure to articulate a clear, positive agenda to address these voters’ fears, and self-inflicted wounds like the '47 percent' gaffe. Given a choice between two unpalatable options, these voters simply stayed home."
The whole country didn't look like Ohio. In growing states like Virginia and Florida, Romney won more votes than any Republican candidate in history. Obama simply won more. That almost doesn't matter, though, and the Republican victories of 2014 convinced even more activists of the Cruz theory.
Before there was Cruz, there was Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator argued in 2012 and afterward that the GOP put its base to sleep by forgetting how to appeal to blue collar voters. On Tuesday, Santorum is meeting with 2012 campaign veterans in Washington, and discussing the possibility of a second run. Cruz wouldn't be the only Republican making the "bold colors" argument for 2016.