Charm offensive.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

How Ted Cruz Loses Friends and Influences People

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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There was a time, not so long ago, when Republican insiders believed there were really two races for their party's nomination. There were the establishment candidates (Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich) and then there were the outsiders (Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson).

The hope was that after an establishment candidate emerged, the party could get behind him and crush the outsiders. But with a week to go, that isn't going to happen before the Iowa caucuses. The January polls for Iowa show Trump has 27.9 percent, Cruz 26.4 and then a steep drop off to Rubio who comes in at 11 percent. The national average is about the same: Trump at 34.8, Cruz at 18.8 and Rubio at 11.6.

So if it's between Cruz and Trump, who will the Republican establishment support? On the surface this seems obvious. Would Republicans really support a New York plutocrat who invited Hillary Clinton to his wedding over a Texas Republican who shut down the government to repeal Obamacare?

And yet, many in the establishment are so opposed to Cruz that they say they could tolerate Trump.

Just this week, two former Republican senate majority leaders -- Trent Lott and Bob Dole -- made this point, with Dole going so far as to say Cruz was a disloyal Republican.  

The current Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has been more subtle, but just as cutting. After Trump began warning voters that Cruz may not be eligible to be commander-in-chief because he was born in Canada, McConnell told ABC News that there were no plans to vote on a Senate resolution affirming his eligibility. (The Senate passed such a measure in 2008 for John McCain.) McCain said this month that the issue of Cruz's eligibility is worth examining. 

One reason so many Republican bigwigs oppose Cruz is that he is considered by many political professionals to be too right-wing to win a national election. One senior Republican House member told me this week that a Cruz nomination would hand the Democrats the Senate. As Politico reported this month, a leading GOP pollster predicted a Cruz ticket would jeopardize many Republican House races.

But the main reason so many Republican insiders oppose Cruz is that he has spent the last three years in the Senate stoking popular conservative resentment against his own party. In floor speeches, he calls Republican leaders members of an elite cartel. He has questioned their integrity, like in July during the debate on trade promotion authority, when he called McConnell a liar and accused him of making a back-room deal to prevent votes on amendments to end the Export-Import Bank. He has insisted that senators cast votes for or against raising of the debt limit, instead of hiding behind procedural maneuvers that shield these votes from public scrutiny.

On the stump, Cruz mocks Dole, McCain and Romney by asking if anyone remembers their presidencies, saying that it will take an uncompromising conservative to win a presidential election.

All of this is deliberate. As the National Review's Eliana Johnson wrote this month, Cruz came to Washington in 2016 "to make enemies of his fellow senators, and friends -- fans -- among the conservative grassroots." Amanda Carpenter, Cruz's former communications director, largely agrees. She told me "Cruz did not come into the Senate wanting to attack his Republican colleagues as frauds, but given their tactics he felt he had no choice."

Other conservatives are less charitable. Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, has not yet endorsed a candidate. He acknowledged the frustration that Cruz's supporters share with their candidate, but he also said they are attacking the wrong target if they blame Republican leaders. "People who went to high school would know the president gets a veto," Norquist told me. He added that Cruz and his movement are effectively saying "Mitt Romney forgot to win the election in 2012."

In most election years, Cruz's positioning against his own party would fail. Republicans usually do not nominate outsiders. Since 1968, Republicans have gone with the candidate whose turn it was. Even Ronald Reagan lost in 1976 to the uninspiring Gerald Ford. And despite popular conservative anger in 2008 and 2012, the party went with John McCain and Mitt Romney.

But 2016 is looking more like 1964, when the upstart Arizona senator Barry Goldwater defeated the New York centrist Nelson Rockefeller. The Republicans lost the election that year, but the conservatives ended up winning in the long run. Today Republicans are in principle descendants of Goldwater, committed to shrinking the administrative state by starving it of tax revenue and repealing entitlements. But the administrative state has expanded even when Republicans have held the presidency.

Cruz has tapped into the frustration of many conservatives with Republican failures to deliver on the promise of Goldwater. This has served him well for 2016. He has won the loyalty of many national talk radio hosts. After Trump made an issue of the fact that Cruz was born in Canada, Mark Levin railed against Trump's tactics. Glenn Beck announced this week that he and his wife would be joining Cruz for a rally in Iowa over the weekend.

It remains to be seen who will emerge from the early primaries and caucuses in the next month. But if it comes down to Cruz or Trump, the Republican establishment will have to swallow hard. Trump has his populist charms, but as Norquist told me, on many of the movement's core issues (with the exception of his tax plan) "Trump is a question mark." The same cannot be said for Cruz, who does pass the conservative litmus test.  

And this is the irony of the 2016 campaign. The Republican establishment candidate this year will likely be the man who has spent the last three years running against the Republican establishment.

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:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net