Today, columnist Peter Beinart had a great deal of fun with a primary-night speech delivered by Ted Cruz. The problem, Beinart deduced, is that Cruz was trying to morph from his old familiar persona as grim movement-conservative ideologue into the kind of guy who might appeal to Republican regulars in next week’s northeastern primaries. But meeting this challenge turned Cruz’s sharp-edged rhetoric into “nonsensical mush.”
One of the dumb things Cruz did was to compare John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to each other, and then to himself, as fellow “outsiders.” The idea of JFK as an “outsider” is pretty laughable; he was from one of the country’s most prominent political families and had 14 years in Congress when he ran for president. But Reagan wasn’t exactly a populist insurgent, either. At the beginning of his third, successful presidential campaign in 1980 (which he undertook after a long career in acting and as a corporate TV flack, followed by two terms as governor of California), recordings of “Hail to the Chief” were played at his Iowa campaign appearances. They cut that out when he was upset in Iowa by Poppy Bush, but still: Reagan represented the domestication of the conservative movement as much as that movement’s conquest of the GOP.
The irony of this particular rap, of course, is that Cruz was treating two insiders as outsiders in order to reposition himself as an insider working with other insiders to stop the outsider Donald Trump. As Beinart puts it:
Cruz is declaring himself an outsider at the very moment he has stopped being one. In state after state, the Republican establishment is rallying around him in an effort to stop Trump. That’s why Cruz is destroying Trump in the insider’s game of selecting delegates.
But I’d go further than that. Cruz’s calling card with the conservative “base” has always been that he’s the smart dude who went to Washington and figured out how to play the Establishment’s game against the Establishment itself. He’s a self-styled parliamentary wizard who exposed the hypocrisy of the GOP congressional leadership and showed what a True Conservative could accomplish with his hands grasping the tiller of the Ship of State. And for that matter, like JFK’s, Cruz’s career has been carefully shaped by a father fanatically convinced that total power was his son’s destiny.
Ronald Reagan was very good at weaving together movement-conservative and Main Street themes into a discourse that satisfied ideologues without threatening regular Republicans and swing voters. Cruz has a ways to go in acquiring that knack. Until he does, Beinart’s right: He should stick to grinding the old ideological axes, and let the panicked GOP come to him.