Ted Cruz Is Stealing a Page From Jimmy Carter’s Political Playbook

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President Jimmy Carter Seated near American Flag
For all their massive differences, Ted Cruz is telling Evangelicals what Jimmy Carter told white Southerners 40 years ago.Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

One of the most common comparisons you hear during this strange campaign season is that Donald J. Trump is a latter-day George Wallace, exploiting racial, ethnic, and religious prejudices; baiting the news media and other enemies; “telling it like it is”; and, most of all, discomfiting the comfortable forces in the Republican Party. It is this latter quality that may be the key to his otherwise-surprising appeal to conservative Evangelicals. The politically active among them feel perpetually used by a Republican Party that pays lip service to their priorities but never seems to pursue them with any degree of seriousness.

And so, as Betsy Woodruff noted last year, they don’t mind retaliating with Trump as a sort of Scourge of God whose very savagery is part of the GOP Establishment’s just punishment:

Ray Moore, the director of South Carolina-based Exodus Mandate (“a Christian ministry to encourage,and assist Christian families to leave Pharaoh’s school system (i.e., government schools),” per its site), held a similar view. He won’t endorse a candidate, but said Trump’s appeal to evangelicals makes a lot of sense.

They get in office and they just give us the back of the hand as soon as they get elected,” he said, referring to top Washington Republicans. “Look at the Planned Parenthood issue, they can’t seem to defund Planned Parenthood, and it’s just amazing to watch that go on for years.”

“He’s been hard on them, and I like that,” he added.

Like Wallace, Trump is “sending them a message,” which doesn’t require a coherent positive agenda or even views with which his vengeful fans entirely agree. When one has despaired of real victory, sometimes lashing out at the closest object — the GOP — makes the most sense.

Wallace’s ultimate vanquisher in presidential politics was the fellow southerner Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 cleverly argued that instead of “sending them a message,” the South should “send them a president.” And to a degree that has largely been forgotten in the wake of Carter’s reelection loss to Ronald Reagan and his post-presidential career as a progressive peacemaker, Carter inspired great passion among conservative white Southerners and especially his fellow Evangelicals, who saw him as “one of their own.” After Carter won the nomination, southern reactionaries who had given the national Democratic Party a wide berth for many years came home, including Wallace himself.

If Trump’s a latter-day Wallace offering to send a message to Beltway elites, then for all his differences from Jimmy Carter, Ted Cruz has adopted a very similar appeal to contemporary conservative Evangelicals, who now operate almost exclusively within the GOP. Robert Draper of The New York Times Magazine has captured it well:

On Nov. 13, 2013, one year after his son was elected to the United States Senate, the pastor Rafael Cruz delivered a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The topic — ‘‘What does the Bible say about why Christians need to be involved in the political arena?’’ — was one of his favorites, and notably appropriate for a school founded by Jerry Falwell, who also founded Moral Majority, the once-powerful political action committee. Over the course of a 30-minute speech that touched on everything from the need for school prayer to the similarities between President Obama’s Washington and Fidel Castro’s Havana, the question of why slowly gave way to the question of who. The pastor concluded by telling his audience, ‘‘God is saying to you: ‘Vote for righteous people.’ ’’ In retrospect, the pastor’s speech that day might be seen as the first (albeit subtle) public move in the eventual bid for the presidency by his son.

Ted Cruz is selling himself to Evangelicals with three simple points: (1) He’s one of them; (2) he’s proved he knows how to fight, not just taunt, their Republican and Democratic enemies in Washington; and (3) he knows how to win a general election. He’s telling these Evangelicals to send them a president, not just a message. 

This is why, of all the attacks recently launched against Cruz by his Republican rivals, the potentially deadliest were those challenging his religious bona fides: one suggesting he had a different message for secular donors in sinful New York, and another showing that according to his tax returns he and his wife are far short of tithing. And thanks to his Ivy League education and his reputation in Washington as a slippery fellow, he may always be vulnerable to claims that he’s a mendacious Elmer Gantry rather than an upright young King Josiah sent by God to reform his nation.  

Jimmy Carter married his conservative southern white following to a broader and largely liberal coalition, and in the wake of Watergate, proving his electability was not a big problem (though in the end he nearly lost to Gerald Ford). It’s Cruz’s burden to convince his audience that conservatives alone can win in 2016 and no longer have to rely on the perfidious Establishment Republicans or any bipartisan deals (“sellouts”) in Washington. That’s a heavy lift, but made easier by the passionate desire of conservatives to believe it is true. And belief rather than simple anger is ultimately the one advantage Cruz may have over Trump.