Ted Cruz isn’t exactly what you’d call a member of the Republican establishment. He says outlandish things. He doesn’t play nicely with others. He wears no cloak of gentility over his criticisms of opponents. “Nobody likes him,” former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said of Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas and presidential hopeful.
Yet the establishment’s arbiters are increasingly lining up behind Cruz. This morning’s news brought word of an endorsement by a pillar of the Republican establishment, former presidential hopeful Jeb Bush. "For the sake of our party and country, we must move to overcome the divisiveness and vulgarity Donald Trump has brought into the political arena," Bush wrote in a statement issued on Wednesday morning.
It is well known in Washington circles that Cruz is not well liked by his Capitol Hill colleagues. His willingness to use Senate rules, in defiance of his party’s leaders, to bring the U.S. to the brink of default, along with his more general penchant for grandstanding, have soured his relations with many of his fellow Republicans. Then there was that time he called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar.
In January, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina described a choice between frontrunner Donald Trump and Cruz for the presidential nomination as a decision between “being shot or poisoned.” He added: “What does it really matter?”
Earlier this month, Graham apparently decided that it actually did matter, and endorsed Cruz, prompting the Newark Star-Ledger to headline an editorial, “Senator Prefers Poison to Gunshots.”
In Tuesday night’s Utah caucuses, which he won with 69 percent of the vote, Cruz enjoyed the support of former GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney who, while not offering an outright endorsement, declared that he would vote for Cruz. (Trump won Arizona the same night, leaving him well ahead of Cruz in the delegate count.)
If Ted Cruz, who has turned on his own party’s leaders and cast President Barack Obama as something just short of a traitor, who has accused the Black Lives Matter movement of celebrating the murder of police officers, who has called for the “carpet-bombing” of Mosul regardless of the devastating number of civilian casualties it would entail—if this Ted Cruz is the Republican Party’s best hope for ending divisiveness within its ranks and the American population, then the GOP, as many have written, is truly in crisis. It’s almost as if Ohio Governor John Kasich, a far more establishment figure, weren’t in the race. What the establishment figures lining up behind Cruz seem to have deduced is that while Kasich matches up favorably for the party against Democratic opponents in polls predicting a general election outcome, they don’t think he can win the nomination, which will be decided by a conservative party base.
For all the talk among Republican and conservative elites about the threat posed to the country by Trump, it’s more likely that the concern is for their own control of the party. Cruz may not play nicely with party leaders, but he is still part of the party structure, relying on its donors and leaders to fuel his presidential campaign and to support his political career overall. Cruz’s victory speech in Texas would seem to speak to that. He offered little of the red meat he throws to Joe Average primary voter, and instead emphasized environmental deregulation and tax reduction—favorite issues of the Koch brothers and other well-heeled Republican donors.
Trump, on the other hand, not only has little interest in appealing to the Republican establishment with his mostly self-funded campaign; it’s in his interest to see the party weakened. Trump has his own brand—one bigger, I suspect he has calculated, than that of the GOP. His strategy is that of a cult of personality.
It seems as if Trump is figuring that the most the party has to offer him is ballot access as a major party nominee, and the free television airtime that comes with the convention. He has little investment in the policy positions adopted by the party through the influence of donors and advocacy groups. He’s not running on policy, as his many changes of heart and lack of conservative orthodoxy on various issues, ranging from Middle East diplomacy to his assessment of Planned Parenthood, have shown.
Should Trump win the Republican Party nomination, scores of party leaders will become previously important people. But if Cruz wins, he will owe much to the establishment figures who ultimately, if reluctantly, backed him. The pooh-bahs will accordingly pick their poison.