Monday, Ted Cruz gave a pink slip to Rick Tyler, his campaign’s communications director, after the latter committed a mind-bendingly stupid unforced error in sharing, on social media, an erroneous college newspaper story to the tune that Marco Rubio passed by Cruz’s father and a staffer in a hotel lobby, saw that the staffer was reading a Bible, and said he wouldn’t find any answers in it. In fact Rubio said the opposite, Tyler was forced to admit the same, and damage control amid the growing backlash required that his head go on the block.
It was the kind of mistake a campaign that has lost its balance will tend to make, and it’s clear Cruz’s campaign is off-balance. The political calculus indicated that Cruz would, if not win, at least give Donald Trump a run for his money in South Carolina. Instead, Rubio was able to ride the endorsements of that state’s governor, its senator that people actually like, and its most popular congressman, plus an orgy of campaign spending dwarfing the field (Rubio needed it; if he didn’t rebound in South Carolina after his face-plant in New Hampshire he was cooked) to a narrow victory over Cruz for second place.
And because of that third-place finish in South Carolina, it’s time for a shakeup in Cruz’s campaign if he’s going to rebound in time for the all-important Super Tuesday primaries. Tyler, who is known as a competent campaign operative, was off his game as Cruz’s spokesman and might have been part of the problem. Replacing him with somebody magnetic and on message could be part of the solution.
But what’s needed for Cruz is more than that, because the Texas senator hasn’t positioned himself properly for a run through the primaries. Two major miscalculations have set him up to underachieve.
The first miscalculation is that if Cruz says “I’m one of you” to the religious Right and the evangelical community loudly and often enough, he’s going to dominate the vote within that community. That hasn’t happened, as his losing South Carolina among evangelical voters to Donald Trump of all people demonstrates, for a number of reasons.
Evangelicals are obviously a great deal more diverse as a voting bloc than you would think. Merely advertising your purity on the pro-life and anti-gay marriage fronts doesn’t necessarily lock up their votes, particularly in a GOP primary where every candidate will give lip service to their positions. Evangelicals have kids who can’t find jobs just like everybody else, they’d like a raise just like everybody else, they think the EPA and IRS are awful just like everybody else, they’re scared to death about the monsters growing bolder around the world just like everybody else and they want to know what you’re going to do about it. If all you do is narrowcast to them on social and cultural issues, it’s not enough.
One reason it’s not enough is that the Christian Right is waking up to the fact that for two generations it has been getting clobbered in the culture, and is now terrified by the perception that everybody younger than 30 thinks it’s perfectly OK to impose negative legal consequences on icky Christian bakeries who want to opt out of baking cakes for gay weddings. The panic is at such a level that a movie plot line we’ve seen a million times now describes religious conservative voters. They’re basically the peaceful natives in Avatar, The Last Samurai (those natives weren’t all that peaceful, but they were backward and that’s good enough), Quigley Down Under, Witness, and Pale Rider who are looking for their protector from the powerful bad guys out there, and it’s OK if the protector comes from a background at odds with the peaceful natives.
Meaning, even though nothing about him suitably identifies him as their ally, Donald Trump is perfectly acceptable as the protector of Christian conservatives, and for many he’s more acceptable than Cruz. Why? Because they think Cruz is too much like them and can’t win any votes among the nonreligious while Trump speaks the language of the non-churchgoing and can defend the peaceful Christians from the heathen Democrat bad guys who are gathering for the next attack. Such is the crisis of confidence among religious conservatives in 21st century America that an anti-hero who brags about sexual trysts with married women is seen as more realistic than the real McCoy.
The other problem with that appeal is that if you’re going to be the Christian candidate in the race your hands are tied with respect to the kind of campaign you can run. You have to run as Ned Flanders, because that’s the standard people demand of self-describing Christian politicians. And nobody thinks Ned Flanders is getting elected president, particularly not when Trump is on the ballot.
And Ted Cruz is not Ned Flanders. Ted Cruz has, and this is a compliment, a wide mean streak in him. His campaign manager Jeff Roe is made of the same stuff as the legendary Lee Atwater. These guys have what it takes to win a street fight with the Democrats, and that’s something we are actually looking for in a Republican nominee. But it hardly fits with a narrative that he’s the Holy Roller in the race and it looks hypocritical. It also makes that “TrusTED” slogan serving as the backdrop at all his speeches look like a lie.
Which brings us to the other miscalculation. Cruz’s identification as the evangelical candidate is not his best feature; his best feature is that if you elect him president the entire city of Washington, D.C. will have a collective stroke. Why? They fear, and reasonably so, that with Cruz the Washington game of self-dealing, crony capitalism, bureaucratic waste, abuse of power, and palace intrigue comes to a screeching halt. Others have made promises about cutting the size and scope of the federal government; Cruz is someone who’s actually serious about it and carries the hatred of the people who benefit from the abuse around as a badge of honor. And poll after poll shows that’s something voters beyond the GOP can get behind.
Cruz is also a far more authentic critic of open borders where immigration is concerned than is Trump; it might be that Trump, who even now favors a “touchback” amnesty idea that is so pointless and wasteful as to call into question how anybody could support him, stole much of his messaging on immigration from Cruz. Rather than “TrusTED” as a backdrop slogan, how about “Jobs For Americans”? His tax plan, his deregulation plan, his immigration plan — all of it reflects the state of the art of Republican policy; focus on that and leave the evangelical narrowcasting alone for a while.
Cruz is being written off in favor of Rubio, who is a mildly acceptable alternative for conservative voters but might actually consider winning a primary somewhere if we’re to give him credibility as the “electable” candidate, but this is anything but inevitable. He simply needs a different approach than the one he’s using, because it’s too brittle, doesn’t appeal effectively to a winning coalition, and as it turns out doesn’t even fit his strengths.
Get better, and go win the election. Regardless of how religious we might be, we conservatives could use a candidate who can do just that — and make it mean something — after 28 years of waiting.