It’s 2 a.m. The bar is closing. Republicans have had a series of strong and nasty Donald Trump cocktails. Suddenly Ted Cruz is beginning to look kind of attractive. At least he’s sort of predictable, and he doesn’t talk about his sexual organs in presidential debates!
Well, Republicans, have your standards really fallen so low so fast? Are you really that desperate? Can you remember your 8 p.m. selves, and all the hope you had about entering a campaign with such a deep bench of talented candidates?
Back in the early evening, before the current panic set in, Republicans understood that Cruz would be a terrible general election candidate, at least as unelectable as Trump and maybe more so. He is the single most conservative Republican in Congress, far adrift from the American mainstream. He has been doing well in primaries because of the support of “extremely conservative” voters in very conservative states, and he really hasn’t broken out of that lane. His political profile is a slightly enlarged Rick Santorum but without the heart.
On policy grounds, he would be unacceptable to a large majority in this country. But his policy disadvantages are overshadowed by his public image ones. His rhetorical style will come across to young and independent voters as smarmy and oleaginous. In Congress, he had two accomplishments: the disastrous government shutdown and persuading all his colleagues to dislike him.
There is another path, one that doesn’t leave you self-loathing in the morning. It’s a long shot, but given the alternatives, it’s worth trying. First, hit the pause button on the rush to Cruz. Second, continue the Romneyesque assault on Trump. The results on Saturday, when late voters swung sharply against the Donald, suggest it may be working.
Third, work for a Marco Rubio miracle in Florida on March 15. Fourth, clear the field for John Kasich in Ohio. If Rubio and Kasich win their home states, Trump will need to take nearly 70 percent of the remaining delegates to secure a majority. That would be unlikely; he’s winning only 44 percent of the delegates now.
The party would go to the convention without a clear nominee. It would be bedlam for a few days, but a broadly acceptable new option might emerge. It would be better than going into the fall with Trump, which would be a moral error, or Cruz, who in November would manage to win several important counties in Mississippi.
This isn’t about winning the presidency in 2016 anymore. This is about something much bigger. Every 50 or 60 years, parties undergo a transformation. The GOP is undergoing one. What happens this year will set the party’s trajectory for decades.
Since Goldwater/Reagan, the GOP has been governed by a free-market, anti-government philosophy. But over the ensuing decades, new problems have emerged. First, the economy has gotten crueler. Technology is displacing workers, and globalization is dampening wages. Second, the social structure has atomized and frayed, especially among the less educated. Third, demography is shifting.
Orthodox Republicans, seeing no positive role for government, have had no affirmative agenda to help people deal with these new problems. Occasionally some conservative policy mavens have proposed such an agenda – anti-poverty programs, human capital policies, wage subsidies and the like – but the proposals were killed, usually in the House, by the anti-government crowd.
The 1980s anti-government orthodoxy still has many followers; Cruz is the extreme embodiment of this tendency. But it has grown increasingly rigid, unresponsive and obsolete.
Along comes Trump offering to replace it and change the nature of the GOP. He tramples all over the anti-government ideology of modern Republicanism. He would replace the free-market orthodoxy with authoritarian nationalism.
He offers to use government on behalf of the American working class, but in negative and defensive ways: to build walls, to close trade, to ban outside groups, to smash enemies. According to him, America’s problems aren’t caused by deep structural shifts. They’re caused by morons and parasites. The Great Leader will take them down.
If the GOP is going to survive as a decent and viable national party, it can’t cling to the fading orthodoxy Cruz represents. But it can’t shift to ugly Trumpian nationalism, either. It has to find a third alternative: limited but energetic use of government to expand mobility and widen openness and opportunity. That is what Kasich, Rubio, Paul Ryan and others are stumbling toward.
Amid all the vulgarity and pettiness, that is what is being fought over this month: Going back to the past, veering into an ugly future, or finding a third way. This is something worth fighting for, worth burning the boats behind you for.
The hour is late and the odds may be long. But there is still hope. It’s a moment for audacity, not settling for Cruz simply because he’s the Titanic you know.
The New York Times