All Republican candidates for major office outside a few old WASPy redoubts want to claim the mantle of conservatism. Indeed, it often seems that Republican primaries revolve around which aspirants can most credibly call themselves “true conservatives” or “movement conservatives,” or, to use Mitt Romney’s self-identification, “severely conservative.” Ronald Reagan is, of course, the indispensable role model for conservatism, despite his tax hikes and liberalized abortion laws and other heresies. Barry Goldwater is an acceptable saint for the truest of believers. But if you are a self-consciously conservative candidate for president, you don’t want to be identified with any member of the treasonous Bush family, or with congressional deal-makers like Mitch McConnell or Bob Dole, or with ideological squishes like John McCain or Gerald Ford. And God forbid anyone would compare you to that squish, that deal-maker, that traitor to the cause Richard Nixon, even if you aren’t bothered by his resignation in disgrace.
Yet Ted Cruz, the 2016 presidential candidate most likely to deploy the language and clubby identity of the conservative movement, has been directly compared to the 37th president by none other than the editor of the venerable conservative-movement magazine National Review, Rich Lowry (albeit in a column for Politico Magazine). And Lowry does not seem to be trying to insult the Texan. Indeed, he seems to be trying to defend Cruz from the insinuation that he would be a terrible general-election candidate like Barry (though Lowry, astonishingly, refers to Cruz’s “energize the base” theory of electability as “a comforting fable.”).
Nixon, says the editor of the magazine that was horrified by the Tricky One’s imposition of wage and price controls and his sudden diplomatic courtship of China, among other heresies, was too shrewd to lose by a landslide, and won on the basis of hard work and brains (and a few felonies — but I digress), not charisma or alliances:
Cruz is cut from roughly similar cloth. He wears his ambition on his sleeve and is not highly charismatic or relatable. In high school, he could have been voted most likely to be seen walking on the beach in his dress shoes. If Cruz wins the nomination, it will be on the strength of intelligence and willpower. He will have outworked, outsmarted and outmaneuvered everyone else.
And all those enemies he’s made? Well, that means he won’t sell out the cause to any RINO friends or colleagues or leaders.
Cruz is not ascending on the basis of warm feelings from his colleagues. Cruz portrays his unpopularity within the Senate as establishment distaste for him as a lonely man of principle. But it is a genuine personal dislike. Not that Cruz cares. In fact, a key to what he has been able to achieve is his apparent immunity to the reflexive desire to be liked by people around you, a weakness to which almost all of us fall prey. Cruz is free of the peer pressure that typically makes all senators, at some level, team players.
Lowry goes on to cheerfully accuse Cruz of flip-flopping on trade and immigration policy, examples, we are told, of his Nixonian “deft political sense.”
Cruz is an amazingly supple adamantine politician. He benefits from the old Mark Twain adage that once you get a reputation as an early riser, you can sleep ’til noon every day. Cruz’s unbending image makes it possible for him to bend as it suits him.
I ended reading the piece as I began, wondering if Lowry’s trying to damn Cruz not with faint praise, but with the wrong kind of praise. Perhaps he’s in the tank for another candidate (Rubio, perhaps?), and he’s the one being tricky. But then he’s already gotten into a profane fight with Donald Trump this year. Maybe this really is his idea of a positive profile.
Either way, it’s a small step up for Cruz to be compared to Richard Nixon rather than his look-alike, Joe McCarthy. The hatred McCarthy aroused in the Senate finally did him in. Nixon won three Republican presidential nominations. Maybe that’s enough of an ambition for Cruz right now.