There’s one huge takeaway from Tuesday’s primaries results: Ted Cruz overperformed in a state where conventional wisdom says he shouldn’t have had a chance, namely Michigan. His overperformance – edging out John Kasich for second place, in a state where Kasich should naturally be stronger – is way more significant looking forward than his once-again second place finish in Mississippi, which is another of those southern states that Cruz’s campaign based their dubious “evangelicals who don’t vote because no one is conservative enough” strategy upon.
Of the “not Trumps” still standing, Senator Cruz is closer to what I’d like to see on policy. Senator Marco Rubio is closer to what I’d like to see in terms of politicking and the all-important engendering of a personal relationship with voters, which I’ve already supposed was more important to Ronald Reagan’s success than his conservatism. It’s time to face facts though, and with his grand tally of zero delegates won on March 8th, realize that Rubio is probably finished. It’s an open question if Rubio can pull out a Florida miracle in less than a week, and the consequences of him not winning are of the same magnitude of the futility of his way forward if he does win. Look at it this way: we have both Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal – both more loved by “our side” than say, Chris Christie – politically intact for the future because they left the race before getting demolished at the ballot box.
The conservative/conservatarian/liberaservative/libertarian movement needs a politically intact Marco Rubio for the future. He’d likely be irreparably damaged by a Florida loss, and I don’t think today’s electorate is going to repeat the Nixonian equation of getting trounced for a major office (California Governor, 1962) and then coming back for a major win (Presidency, 1968) anytime soon (See: Rick Perry, 2012 and 2016 Presidential campaigns).
“But what about Kasich!?,” I’m sure someone out there is crying. Well, what goes for Rubio goes for him. He could win Ohio next Tuesday, but what would that actually accomplish? He just finished third in a northern rust belt state he had staked not quite as much as his home state on, but close. There’s a place for Kasich in a hopeful Republican administration that will begin on January 20, 2017, but it isn’t in the Oval Office.
Which brings us back to Ted Cruz. I almost wrote, “leaves us with,” but that’d be inaccurate as it’s hardly a settling position. He’s got Reagan conservatism down pat – and that isn’t the problem. Ted Cruz just isn’t likeable except to people inclined to agree with him in the first place, but I think he can fix it. He might even be able to fix it quickly enough to game-change both Florida, Ohio, and other Super Tuesday II states. Here’s three ways how.
Reinvent his stump speech. I tweeted during last week’s debate Thursday night that for the first time in a long while, Cruz opened his mouth and didn’t make me like him less. He then followed up one of his best debate performances with his address to CPAC on Friday…which was the mostly same Ted Cruz speech we’ve heard every time he gives one. It’s great material for firing up conservatives. Cruz doesn’t need to fire up conservatives. One of the most common complaints I hear of Cruz’s delivery is that he comes across like a Baptist preacher. I’m a little more charitable and say Cruz always thinks he’s delivering a closing argument to a jury, rather than speaking to an electorate. He needs to inspire and attract persuadable Republican voters currently leaning towards or in other candidates’ camps. As important, he needs to start inspiring and attracting voters in whole, looking forward to the general election in November. Pitching fear and reactionary solutions in response has been cornered by Donald Trump. Take a page from Marco Rubio and be visionary first, adversarial a distant second.
Make peace with the “establishment”. This will be the hardest thing for Cruz to do, but he has to if he expects to win the nomination and the Presidency. It can be done without surrendering principles too. When Senator Lindsey Graham – if he isn’t in tune with the “establishment” no one is – suggested last week that it might be time for the party to rally around Cruz to stop Trump, that was an invitation to Cruz not a plea to the establishment. There’s one simple event that Cruz could construct that will fit this bill: apologize publicly to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Cruz, if you remember, called McConnell a liar on the floor of the Senate back last July, scoring points with RINO-hating conservatives none of whom happen to serve in the Congress. Ideally, he’d have done this before the Kentucky caucus last Saturday (where he came in second, 4.3% behind Trump) but it could still have a positive impact. I’d do it as a joint appearance with both McConnell and junior Kentucky Senator Rand Paul if they’re willing. Neither of them has a current candidate endorsement. Rand Paul was very smart to keep McConnell in his corner, supporting the majority leader for reelection in 2014, and receiving his endorsement for President. It’s almost certain McConnell will back Paul for reelection to the Senate in November. Rand Paul knew he’d ultimately need the “establishment” more than they’d need him, and he’s better for it. Cruz could make it clear that he’s not seeking either man’s endorsement at the presser, if that’s what’s needed to get them to show. Leave it as “I’m sorry,” the media will cover it, and Cruz will gain points with the hated establishment and also show a quality to voters that doesn’t come naturally to him: humility.
Wake up to a “big tent” strategy. As mentioned above, Cruz’s campaign was centered on winning southern, evangelical conservatives in a near-exclusionary fashion. It failed. If there’s one lasting lesson to this election cycle, it’s that evangelicals don’t vote as a cohesive bloc; they’ve been going for twice-divorced, irreverent in his delivery Trump more than Cruz. Part of this goes back to the first point on his campaign rhetoric – be less preachy and conservatives-focused – but it also speaks to seizing opportunities when they’re handed to you on a silver platter. Last month, Cruz and his campaign pulled a campaign ad solely because one of the actors in it, Amy Lindsay, has been in “Skinemax” films. It was a clear pander to social/moral conservatives/statists (“Progressives for Jesus”, as described in Meredith Ancret Walker’s new book), and gained Cruz nothing while solidifying him as a cultural prude. Actually, it lost Cruz something, because Ms. Lindsay has now come out in support of Trump, when she had earlier said she could support Cruz. There’s an opportunity now sitting here for the taking that will scream inclusivity, not be seen as pandering, and will make progressive heads explode: get Caitlyn Jenner on the campaign trail and do joint appearances. The left’s heads are already detonating after her not-quite-endorsement of Cruz. Play it up. What’s Jenner’s hesitancy on fully backing Cruz? Evangelical Christianity – you know, that supposed voting bloc that has failed Cruz thus far. There’s more to be gained with people not inclined to join the “Cruz Crew” than will be lost by those who will be fauxtraged. And guess who, more than any part of the electorate, will stand up and take notice? Millennials. Win them.
Super Tuesday II on March 15th will probably cast the die for who the Republican nominee will be, come July’s convention in Cleveland. Ted Cruz, by the results so far, is the only candidate with a mathematical path to beating Trump outright. The opportunity to broaden his appeal is sitting in his hands. It remains to be seen if he grasps it.