Five years ago, as Ted Cruz plotted his path to the U.S. Senate, the anti-establishment crusader sought a private audience with and the backing of one of the faces of the modern GOP establishment: George W. Bush.

In a never-before-reported meeting in Bush’s Dallas office, Cruz began to outline his 2012 campaign playbook for the former president, according to people familiar with the conversation. Cruz explained how he would consolidate conservatives yearning for a political outsider, how he would outflank the front-runner on the right, how he would proudly carry the mantle of the ascendant tea party to victory over entrenched elites.

It was impressive foreshadowing. But Bush cut Cruz off before he could finish.

“I guess you don’t want my support,” Bush interrupted. “Ted, what the hell do you think I am?

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In my conversations with Republican policy types and Senate aides about Cruz, this lack of regard for his colleagues, and for the niceties that have traditionally governed the upper chamber, was a common theme. As Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader, told me last week, referring to the time Cruz called McConnell a liar on the Senate floor: “You just don’t do that. Are we not still gentlemen, and respectful of each other?”

Another criticism of Cruz is that his antics are disruptive and damaging to the Republican Party. The shutdown nearly led to a national default, terrifying the business community. It led to the lowest approval ratings for the GOP in decades. Even the Kochs came out against such tactics. Groups like the Chamber of Commerce generally support a conservative platform, but not at the price of government ceasing to function. “It’s not what he’s trying to accomplish or what he says he’s trying to accomplish that bothers people,” former McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes told The Washington Post. “It’s that he’s consistently sacrificed the mutual goals of many for his personal enhancement.”…

But a Republican policy expert close to a number of top GOP operatives and donors insisted it’s not about Cruz’s style or his positions. It’s his disingenuousness—and inability to produce results. “He knows his tactics are bound to fail, but pursues them to debase his Republican colleagues under false pretenses and endear himself to the base as the only authentic conservative,” said the expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he runs an organization that does not endorse candidates. But the effort doesn’t result in smaller government or the end of Obamacare—all it achieves is drawing attention to Cruz. “He is incapable of delivering anything but theater,” the expert added.

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“The bottom line is many people around here think Cruz would be worse for our chances of keeping the majority,” said a senior Republican senator, who requested anonymity to speak about Cruz frankly. “He’s so polarizing, it could be a wipeout.”…

“Trump says things that drive you up the wall — he says he doesn’t like guys who get captured and that he’ll make Mexico pay for the wall — but he’s not mean. Cruz is mean,” said the senior Republican…

Another GOP senator who requested anonymity said that while neither Cruz nor Trump would be ideal ticket toppers in states such as New Hampshire and Florida, it will be easier for vulnerable incumbents to distance themselves from Trump than from Cruz.

“Trump’s not really seen as a Republican, while Cruz is much more identified with the party,” the lawmaker said. “Trump would be better heading the ticket than Cruz.”

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“The Republicans’ presidential nominee must build a winning coalition that extends beyond the Republican base,” said Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania. “Running a campaign and expanding the coalition is an exercise in addition, not subtraction.”

Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who has been chasing Mr. Trump in the polls in early primary states, is popular among religious conservatives and hard-right Republican voters. But Mr. Trump’s unusual bloc, such that it is, pulls in registered Democrats and other nontraditional Republican primary voters. Indeed, some polling has shown overlap in views among those who favor Mr. Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“Ted Cruz is a rigid ideologue,” said Mr. Dent, who is not supporting Trump and has yet to endorse anyone. “Donald Trump is ideologically scattered and malleable. In my view, a more rigid ideology would have a much harder time assembling a winning general election coalition than the less doctrinaire candidate.”

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Campbell tells me that the Cruz campaign is overlooking another fundamental aspect of his work: The party itself needs to be united behind its nominee, and the open warfare that has broken out over the prospect of Cruz becoming the GOP’s standard-bearer suggests that’s unlikely to happen should he best his Republican rivals. “A candidate who appeals only to the establishment or only to the true-blue conservative can’t win” the general election, Campbell says. “You need them both together. Even if you got every conservative out to vote, you still need moderate support as well. And the establishment can’t hope to put together a winning ticket without conservative support.”…

I ask Campbell if he thinks Cruz can muster the establishment support necessary to unify the party and pull off a general-election victory. “I don’t think so,” he says, “and he hasn’t made much of an effort to do it. My dream ticket would be a Rubio-Kasich ticket.” Rubio, Campbell argues, is the only candidate who has shown the ability to appeal to both ideological conservatives and establishment moderates…

Like Campbell, Sides offers a word of caution about deeply ideological candidates. “There is some research that shows that candidates who are strongly ideological do suffer a penalty at the ballot box,” he says, pointing to the performance of Republican Barry Goldwater, who lost a landslide to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Democrat George McGovern, who was clobbered by Richard Nixon in 1972.

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The think­ing goes as fol­lows: If Cruz loses Iowa, he peters out in New Hamp­shire and doesn’t pose a risk of fin­ish­ing in a re­spect­able second place. That al­lows the es­tab­lish­ment win­ner out of the Gran­ite State to build mo­mentum as the anti-Trump al­tern­at­ive…

These strategists are look­ing at Trump’s in­creas­ingly bel­li­cose at­tacks against Cruz with glee. In their view, only Trump can suc­cess­fully put a dent in Cruz’s sky-high fa­vor­ab­il­ity among Re­pub­lic­ans, which is a pre­con­di­tion to block­ing him from the nom­in­a­tion.

But there’s one big prob­lem with the the­ory be­ing em­braced by many party pooh-bahs. It risks hand­ing the elec­tion to Trump on a sil­ver plat­ter—help­ing knock out his strongest rival while watch­ing help­lessly as more-mod­er­ate al­tern­at­ives blow each oth­er up in the pro­cess. The wish­ful think­ing be­hind such a strategy is that Cruz is ut­terly un­elect­able, while Trump is un­pre­dict­able enough to win a gen­er­al elec­tion. In real­ity, Cruz looks like an elect­able stand­ard-bear­er, while Trump could blow the party to smithereens…

One thing is clear: Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers de­test Cruz so much that they’re will­ing to run the risk an un­elect­able Re­pub­lic­an will glide to the nom­in­a­tion. In­stead of com­ing up with a con­cer­ted strategy to deal with Trump from the be­gin­ning, they’re now play­ing with fire with some last-ditch im­pro­vising—the con­sequences of which could burn the party down.

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It may be that members of the Republican establishment, in their trolling of Cruz, don’t address Trump’s own electability because they recognize it for what it is. “Of course, this willingness to accommodate Mr. Trump is driven in part by the fact that few among the Republican professional class believe he would win a general election,” the New York Times reported in a separate piece about the establishment’s supposed détente with the mogul. “In their minds it would be better to effectively rent the party to Mr. Trump for four months this fall, through the general election, than risk turning it over to Mr. Cruz for at least four years, as either the president or the next-in-line leader for the 2020 nomination.”

There’s the tell. Are we really to think that the Republican Party establishment has already come to terms with losing this election? The purpose of the Republican Party establishment is not primarily ideological; it is to win elections for the Republican Party so that the Republican Party will have more ability to do the bidding of the interest groups that prop it up. If the establishment was already prepared to lose the election, they’d be better off going with Cruz to at least scratch the conservative movement’s itch for one of their own as the nominee in order to prove that this path won’t actually work…

Their first objective is to take out Cruz. That means stopping him in Iowa. If he loses Iowa, a narrative sets in about how he blew it, and he might then finish out of the top three in New Hampshire. From there, he would likely not be able to make the dominant sweep through the South over the next month that his delegate strategy requires. If we look at Cruz’s Iowa trend line over the past week as he’s been taking incoming fire from all sides, it seems that this part of the plan is working.

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“This has been overblown because a small number of people who really don’t like Cruz are happy to say he’s worse than Trump,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and former House GOP leadership spokesman. “People have been personally burned by Cruz and really don’t like him but if they give Trump long enough, he’ll burn them too.”

A senior congressional Republican aide, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, agreed with Cooper. “People hate Cruz because they’ve had to deal with him. Haven’t had that experience with Trump yet,” the aide said, confessing that he’d vote for Cruz if they were his only two choices.

There’s no consensus within the party’s establishment as to which of the two candidates represents the greater threat. According to numerous GOP strategists with establishment connections who spoke on condition of anonymity, Trump’s upside is that he’s a businessman who they believe may be more pragmatic than ideological when push comes to shove, while Cruz’s upside is that he’s a longtime devotee to conservative causes (unlike Trump, who has famously voiced liberal views in the past) and more predictable.

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Cruz is a true believer. Trump has no firm principles except making money, getting attention, and gaining power. But Cruz really does detest the federal government, and has spent much of his life embracing radical right economic and political views. When Cruz said “we are facing what I consider to be the epic battle of our generation,” he wasn’t referring to jihadist terrorism but to Obamacare…

He’s more disciplined and strategic. Trump is all over the place, often winging it, saying whatever pops into his mind. Cruz hews to a clear script and a carefully crafted strategy. He plays the long game (as he’s shown in Iowa). Cruz’s legal career entailed a sustained use of the courts to achieve conservative ends, and he plots his moves carefully…

Cruz is a loner who’s willing to destroy institutions. Trump has spent his career using the federal government and making friends with big shots. Not Cruz. Most of his Republican colleagues in the Senate detest him. And Cruz is eager to destroy: He has repeatedly crossed to the other side of the Capitol and led House Republicans toward fiscal cliffs. In the Fall of 2013, Cruz’s strident opposition to Obamacare – including a 21-hour talking marathon — led in a significant way to the shutdown of the federal government.

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These arguments are so weak that they can be understood only as rationalizations for a passionate hatred of Cruz felt by Republicans whom he has challenged. I’m a friend of Cruz, but you need not be one to see that anger is leading the officials to make a mistake — or, rather, three of them…

[I]t is not at all clear that Trump would make a stronger general-election candidate. Some Republicans say he has more potential than Cruz among white voters without college degrees. Maybe so. But Trump could also do worse among college-educated whites and among nonwhites. What little evidence we have suggests he would be a weaker candidate overall: He’s doing a bit worse than Cruz in head-to-head polling matchups with Hillary Clinton, and much worse in polls that measure whether voters view the candidates favorably or unfavorably.

Some Republicans believe a Trump loss would not hurt their congressional candidates as much as a Cruz loss, because voters will see Trump as his own man while viewing Cruz as a symbol of the party. Dream on. Any nominee will be the de facto leader of the party…

[I]t’s likely that congressional Republicans would find it easier to work with Cruz than Trump in the White House. Cruz’s Senate colleagues think he has been selfish rather than principled when he has picked fights with them. But his self-interest as president would point him toward passing conservative legislation — replacing Obamacare, for example, something that Cruz and congressional Republicans have said mostly the same things about for several years. Trump would be much less predictable.

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Why does the Establishment hate Cruz so much? He threatens their livelihood, unlike Trump, whose real estate and casino business has required friendly dealings with politicians of all stripes for half a century. Permit me an anecdote: a couple of years ago I attended the annual dinner of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs where I was then a Fellow, and had the honor to sit next to Allen West. Col. West had just lost his Congressional seat in Florida to a massive Democratic campaign to dislodge him. We were discussing supply-side economics. Sen. Lindsey Graham sauntered over and flashed a smile with more teeth than a Great White. West and I stood up. I told Sen. Graham, “We should make this man president.” Graham showed even more teeth and declared, “First, we’re going to make him rich.”…

Corporate America wanted nothing to do with Ronald Reagan in 1980. Not a single Fortune 500 CEO backed him–all of them supported George H. W. Bush or John Connally in the primaries. When informed of this (Jude Wanniski, who was at the meeting, told me), Reagan said that he didn’t need them–he would be the candidate of the entrepreneur, the small businessman, the farmer, the workingman. Cruz wants to be Reagan redux. The Establishment remembers Reagan; in particular, it remembers that the corporate powers-that-be of 1980 were dwarfed by the entrepreneurial newcomers whom the Reagan reforms unleashed. It didn’t like Reagan the first time, and the last thing it wants is a younger incarnation of him.

Without a return to entrepreneurship, America’s economy will stagnate and America’s middle class will continue to lose ground. Donald Trump represents the triumph of resentment over hope. I don’t know what American voters will do. But I’m frightened.

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“If it come downs to Cruz and Trump, I’m a big Trump supporter.”