Forget the Alamo: Ted Cruz and the "only consistent conservatives can win" theory

Start with Cruz’s retelling of Republican presidential history. He claims that beginning with Richard Nixon, every Republican nominee who was elected ran as a “strong conservative,” while every loser ran as a moderate. Cruz was born in December 1970 and clearly has hazy memories at best of the 1968 and 1972 races, the latter of which saw National Review endorse John Ashbrook, a conservative congressman from Ohio, in the GOP primaries rather than Nixon. Be that as it may, this is an all-too-simple formulation that overlooks the way politically successful conservatives have always tempered parts of the conservative agenda precisely to gain a principled majority.

Ronald Reagan, whom Cruz frequently invokes in support of his argument, happens to be the best example of this approach. In 1964, the Gipper opposed the creation of Medicare, but in 1980 he frequently said he would not try to eliminate or even reform the program. Reagan recognized that it was better to focus on the things he could change than on those he couldn’t. He understood that principle and prudence are tightly intertwined.

It’s possible that the country has moved to the right since Reagan’s day, making a more consistent conservatism politically possible. That indeed is the unstated assumption of Cruz’s idea: that an unwavering conservative majority already exists if only we find the courage to mobilize it. Again, would that it were so. All the available data show that this is not true.