If you look at the charges of dirty politics that are beginning to seriously damage Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, they’re pretty small-bore stuff. His minions seized on an announcement by Ben Carson’s campaign that he was taking a break after the Iowa caucuses to suggest that Carson, already fading fast, was dropping out. It’s actually what the entire political world had been expecting Carson to do for some time; there was even a school of thought that he was no longer running but just hustling books. So that doesn’t exactly make Cruz into Richard Nixon. Then there’s the idea that Cruz has been lying about his and Marco Rubio’s actual records on immigration policy, based on fine-grained parsing of their speeches during consideration of amendments to a bill that never became law. The alleged nastiness was topped off by a weird and garbled video in which Rubio said something odd to a Cruz staffer about the Bible he was reading, which Cruz’s spokesperson promoted on social media for the nine seconds or so before he was unceremoniously fired over it.
When you are running a presidential campaign with the slogan “TrusTed,” and boasting of your religious faith, and accusing your opponents and the entire Republican Party of habitually breaking promises to conservatives, you don’t want to buttress suspicions you are in fact Elmer Gantry. Cruz’s opponents understand that. But the funny thing is, these misdemeanors are merely miniature examples of the behavior that made him a pariah in Washington almost instantly after his arrival in the Senate just three years ago.
Cruz’s behavior during the 2013 “government shutdown” trauma trip was not only unprecedented for a freshman; it exposed his Republican colleagues to the fury and ridicule of constituents and conservative activists precisely when they were trying to be statesmanlike for a change. Cruz upstaged not only the Senate GOP leadership but the House GOP leadership as well. Worse yet was the way he seemed to exult in his new and unearned power, holding meetings with House conservatives (a huge no-no in Washington, where bicameralism is even more unusual than bipartisanship) and all but setting himself up as a renegade national party leader. Had the Obamacare-rollout mess not followed so immediately, a lot of Republicans believed, Cruz might have personally and for purposes of self-aggrandizement stopped the whole 2014 GOP landslide.
But if Cruz was disliked for being a preening bully, he was truly condemned for propagating a Big Lie: that congressional Republicans could do things like “de-fund” Obamacare or Planned Parenthood if only they wanted to. As my colleague Jonathan Chait explained last month:
Cruz has sneakily exploited the base’s ignorance to his own political benefit, at the cost of the party’s ability to safeguard its own interests. In particular, Cruz takes advantage of Republican voters’ inability to understand why Republican control of Congress does not give the party the power to enact its agenda. Cruz demagogically blames fellow Republicans for results that are the Constitution’s fault. The fact that Cruz is smart enough to know this only makes him more irritating.
To put it another way, Cruz is seeking to exploit decades of conservative conspiracy theories about the perfidy and gutlessness of the Republican Party. That in turn means that many Republicans have a tangible stake in turning the tables and showing up Cruz as the real charlatan.
Are other Republicans blowing a dog whistle when they shout about this or that Cruz campaign peccadillo, hoping voters suddenly see the “nasty guy” (as Trump famously labels him) they’ve come to know? Or is it just a coincidence that the instrument of his destruction is so richly appropriate? If Cruz survives his newest troubles — just today, National Review is reporting an incipient rebellion in the ranks of conservative Evangelical elites supporting him — and goes on to win the nomination, this dark and saturnine man is not likely to be in a forgiving mood.