Bush endorsement of Cruz a baton-pass to the Tea Party

Ghostbusters references aside, the endorsement of Ted Cruz by Jeb Bush yesterday offers a potential historic changing of the guard for the Republican Party. As perhaps the man who can most be said to represent the GOP’s “establishment,” the decision to bypass another member of Republican leadership — Gov. John Kasich — in favor of a conservative activist and first-term Senator known for publicly battling leadership rather than working with them acknowledges the ascendancy of the Tea Party. But as I ask in my column for The Fiscal Times, is it too late?

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza rightly notes that this endorsement – and those of others, including Graham – may not be explicitly strategic, but that is the intent. “The lining-up behind Cruz is solely aimed at trying to stop Trump from getting to 1,237 delegates before the Republican National Convention,” Cillizza writes, in the hope that “the Texas Republican, having served his purpose by keeping it from Trump, will be replaced by a more palatable alternative like, say, Kasich.”

That may be the intent, but that doesn’t describe the impact that Bush’s bombshell represents. For the first time, Republican leadership has acknowledged that they cannot control the outcome of intramural contests, and that the energy and the momentum of the Republican Party has escaped their grasp. Whether they will admit it or not, the endorsement of Ted Cruz and the use of him as a rally point to oppose Trump passes the baton to movement conservatives and the Tea Party as the new arbiters of Republican politics.

That in itself is a sea change in the GOP, especially since for many of those rallying to the cause now, Cruz represented the dangers of the same conservative consistency that Bush hailed in his endorsement.

The only question now is whether the pass of this baton comes too late. Donald Trump and his supporters didn’t wait for a baton – they seized the momentum themselves and marginalized the donor and leadership class. The fight down to the convention will be more than just about a nomination. It will determine the identity of the Republican Party for a generation to come, and decide who will take the reins as the new establishment.

Faced with two challenges to the established GOP order, the leadership of the party has to choose between movement conservatives and Cruz or the populists and Trump. Bush, Graham, and others have turned to the Tea Party to save them from Trump more than the populists, but the fact that they have failed to turn aside either faction from driving the party shows that the energy of the party has sidelined them. This primary season proves that much, regardless of who winds up with the nomination — and that’s one reason that backing Cruz now to allow Kasich to win the nomination at the convention would be a disaster for the GOP.

The big question for Cruz is whether this baton pass does more damage than good among anti-establishment voters, even if it does boost movement conservatives. Newsmax’s Nick Sanchez believes that Jeb’s conservative track record in Florida will buffer the downside, and giving Cruz and the Tea Party access to the “establishment” donor base will pay dividends as well:

3. The Bush family has a national network of supporters — Money alone cannot win an election, and — as Cruz demonstrated right off the bat in the Iowa caucus — tapping into the network of bottom-up grassroots organizing can often ensure a victory. Because Jeb’s father and brother were both presidents, not only will the Cruz campaign now benefit from the Bush’s contacts in the organizing world, but likely from the family’s network of advisors and strategists too.

4. Jeb gives the Cruz campaign the balance it needs — Cruz has long been considered by many to be too conservative and unlikeable to win, but Jeb clearly disagrees with that sentiment and sees a true winner. Cruz’s reputation as a fire-starter will be moderated by Bush’s steady and so-called “establishment” record of getting things done.

Perhaps, but that could be better accomplished by convincing Kasich to join him as running mate, and would not carry as many negatives. In order for this to pay off, Cruz has to be seen coming off the baton pass as his own man, with others coming to Cruz’s banner on his terms rather than theirs.

Still, it’s a significant moment. We’ll see if it came too late. Perhaps if Republican leadership had acknowledged the grassroots and sunk their investment into one of the new generation of GOP leaders instead of Bush — Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal come to mind — they wouldn’t be faced with an existential crisis now.

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