Can he mend fences?

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

No, Cruz Isn't a Safe Republican Choice

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Ted Cruz’s surge is picking up momentum rapidly. He has pulled into the lead in Iowa polling, and is now a clear second to Donald Trump in national surveys.

Cruz still has several obstacles before he can get close to the presidential nomination, and FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten reminds us that even as we’re getting close to the primaries and caucuses, polls are not very predictive.

Yet polls can still be self-fulfilling if party actors take them seriously. If these influential Republicans -- politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, and party-aligned interest groups and the partisan press -- believe that the nomination is now down to a fight between Cruz and Trump, then they may find themselves jumping on the Cruz bandwagon.

Just how bad would that be for the Republican Party?

Jonathan Chait and Matt Yglesias both say: Not so bad, really.

Chait:

Cruz’s demagoguery is specific to a certain set of conditions — a world in which Republicans control Congress but not the White House — that by definition would not apply if Cruz won the White House. Unlike Trump, a bona fide free agent, Cruz has given his party no reason to doubt his convictions. If elected, a Cruz presidency would be functionally identical to a Rubio presidency.

Yglesias:

DC Republicans are disgusted by the way he puts his own interests over the party's, and they don't want him to lead their party. But if he did lead their party, his interests and the party's interests would be aligned, and there's no reason to think he would govern in a heterodox or problematic way.

So should Republican party actors embrace Cruz? No, not as long as there is a realistic alternative or alternatives to Trump.

The two things parties should care about in presidential nominations are how well a candidate would do in the general election and how good a job he would do as president. Chait and Yglesias agree that Cruz would be a worse general-election candidate than a less ideologically extreme candidate. But what about a Cruz presidency?

It’s true that little distinguishes Cruz from mainstream conservatives when it comes to policies. But there's a lot more to choosing a president than merely finding someone willing to sign whatever a Republican Congress passes, or veto anything a future Democratic Congress might pass.

In fact, it isn't especially likely that President Cruz’s interests would always or even usually align with those of much of the party. Presidents have different constituencies than members of the House or the Senate. Their time horizons are different, too. They have just the single re-election concern. To take one example: Congress will continue to be unpopular during a Cruz administration, because Congress is always unpopular. Would Cruz defend an unpopular Republican Congress and its leaders, or would he give in to the temptation to attack them?

Even worse, presidents are tempted to act on what they personally care about, not on what their party wants. We haven’t seen that recently because Barack Obama is such a creature of the Democratic Party. But go back a few decades, and Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson all (in different ways) frequently ignored their party to try to carry out policies they believed in. They also frustrated members of Congress from their party who wanted presidential clout to help them pass bills.

We even saw this personal agenda at work with a party-connected president, George W. Bush, when he tried to put a total wild card, Harriet Miers, on the Supreme Court. Bush beat a hasty retreat, but a President Cruz might not.

Basic governing competency matters too. Cruz's only real “accomplishment” in his brief Senate career has been a pointless and counterproductive government shutdown. Some Republicans are wary of electing a relatively inexperienced president, pointing to Barack Obama as an example of what they want to avoid on their own side. Cruz is the least experienced of any of the Republican candidates who have held public office, including Marco Rubio.

Granted: Trump would be an even more dangerous president for Republicans than Cruz, especially for the coalition that has dominated the party for the last 40-plus years. But they would be making a mistake if they don’t realize how much of a threat Cruz could be to their party, at least as they've known it .

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:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net