Winter White House.

Photographer: Gaston De Cardenas/Getty Images

Republicans' Problem From Hell: Trump or the Anti-Trump?

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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At about 10 p.m. on Super Tuesday, Donald Trump pivoted from candidate to nominee to president.

He invited the country to the Florida White House. Rather than a victory speech in a rented hotel ballroom, he held a formal press conference at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach mansion/golf club. With its high ceilings, heavy molding and phalanx of flags, the setting was a Trumpian pastiche of the East Room. He even had a courtier, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, standing over his shoulder, nodding like Nancy Reagan and applauding limply like a listless Ed McMahon. What stagecraft.  

How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

More important, Trump the showman tamped down the bombast, limited himself to a few personal insults, stayed on message and promised unity. He still delivered his usual stream of consciousness, each disparate thought loosely connected by “believe me,” “to be honest with you” and “in all fairness,” but it wasn’t unhinged.

Still, the exercise in restraint wasn’t enough to calm those who fear an authoritarian strongman with seemingly poor impulse control and the nuclear codes at his fingertips. But he managed to impersonate a candidate who knows he’s won the prize, even if most of Washington is busy figuring out how to make sure he hasn’t.

If things weren’t bad enough for a party that sees itself hurtling into the abyss, Super Tuesday delivered another huge problem: The rise of the anti-Trump Ted Cruz, the most reviled member of Congress in recent memory. Although Senator Marco Rubio finally won something, the Minnesota caucuses, and Governor John Kasich almost won Vermont, Cruz is the only candidate to have beaten Trump in three states.

He should be the apple of the eye of every super-PAC, wealthy donor and Republican who wants to keep the nomination from the renegade Trump. But even the most desperate mainstream Republicans who care about limited government, fiscal discipline, low taxes and a realistic foreign policy are hobbled by an asterisk to their #NeverTrump pledge that says “But Not Cruz.”

Maybe they can get over it after a bad week in which Trump quoted Mussolini and hemmed and hawed over rejecting the white supremacist David Duke, prompting House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to denounce him.

There’s a lot to overcome with Cruz. By all accounts, even his friends don’t like him. His one comrade, Senator Mike Lee, moved on, eventually finding a new alliance with a Democrat, Senator Cory Booker, on criminal justice reform.  Cruz walks alone in the Senate.

Cruz’s biggest problem, to avoid the L-word, is truthiness. Look him in the eye and get his vote for your bill and learn during roll call that he’s changed his mind. The epithet “liar” has been thrown around during this campaign, but Cruz was an early adopter, breaking a taboo by calling McConnell one -- and on the Senate floor. As he crusaded to repeal Obamacare, anyone who warned that was impossible was tarred as a Nazi appeaser.

Cruz went further. Shortly after he came to Washington, he said, “I'm pretty certain Mitt Romney actually French-kissed Barack Obama” and deserved to lose the presidency.

Before he got to the Senate, when he had a minor job with George W. Bush, Cruz’s fingers had to be pried off the handle of his van so anxious was he to have face time with the boss. As Texas solicitor general, he showed no balance. He was so adamant that a kid sentenced to 16 years for stealing a calculator from Walmart serve his full sentence that he took the case to the Supreme Court to be sure the mistake wasn’t corrected. 

It’s hard to choose Cruz’s worst piece of behavior, but accusing Senator Chuck Hagel of treason during his hearings to be confirmed as secretary of defense could take the cake. He kept saying that Hagel was corrupted by money from enemies of the U.S., particularly North Korea. Members of his own party were appalled.

He brought his temperament to his campaign. He photo-shopped a picture of Rubio to look as if he were warmly shaking Obama’s hand at the Capitol. Nor were those who know him shocked that his campaign spread a false report that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race in Iowa so that he could pick up those votes. He won dirty. Two weeks ago, he had to fire Rick Tyler, a top aide, for an ad claiming that Rubio was faking his respect for the Bible.

Meanwhile Trump, counting delegates, fell asleep dreaming of his winter White House, not a reality show as much as a mathematical reality. Republicans made it possible. By tearing down government, by trying to prove the president was an illegitimate Kenyan-born Muslim (with Trump’s help), by treating compromise as a mortal sin, and by shutting down Washington for the fun of it, the party has brought itself to this point.

Now they may have to choose between a vulgar, fast-talking salesman with few scruples, five children by three wives, businesses that ran roughshod over workers and an arrogant, prevaricating, self-satisfied, preening, Bible-quoting careerist who thinks he’s perfect. Let’s hope they choose wisely.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net