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August 08, 2013 1:07 PM Smart Guy Making a Stupid Argument

By Ed Kilgore

Time’s Alex Altman snagged a rare MSM interview with Sen. Ted Cruz, much of it absorbed by Cruz complaining about MSM/liberal stereotypes of conservatives as stupid, evil or crazy. There’s some more interesting stuff about Cruz modeling his 2012 Senate campaign partially on Obama’s 2008 campaign, and then a crafty response to a question about foreign policy in which the Texan positions himself half-way between John McCain and Rand Paul, where—surprise!—Ronald Reagan allegedly stood.

But here’s the segment that really caught my attention, partially because it echoes an ancient article of faith among movement conservatives (or as ancient, at least, as Phyllis Schlafly’s 1964 book A Choice Not An Echo), and partially because it’s, well, kind of stupid:

If you look at the last 40 years, the clearest pattern that emerges is when Republicans nominate a strong conservative as a presidential candidate, Republicans win. When Republicans nominate a candidate who runs as a moderate, Republicans lose. Now what is the conclusion of all the political consultants in Washington, looking at those last 40 years? We need to nominate a moderate. Because they’ve lost every single race for four decades.

The “40 years” time frame is useful for Cruz because it excludes the Goldwater disaster of 1964, and also the two victories of this guy:

Yes, the Tricky One initially rose to national power as a paragon of anti-communist fervor, and had an intermittently warm relationship with the Right. But he’s also the guy who won in 1968 running squarely between Humphrey and Wallace (remember the secret plan to end the Vietnam War?), and won a big landslide in 1972 after imposing wage-and-price controls, recognizing China, and inflating the economy with deficit spending, among the many heresies he disguised with his kulturkampf rhetoric.

But forget about Nixon for a minute. Is Cruz asserting that in 1976 Reagan would have done better against Jimmy Carter than Gerald Ford (who came breathtakingly close to an upset win) did? I find that assertion ludicrous, given Carter’s identity-based strength in the South and Ford’s successful exploitation of yankee liberal misgivings about Jimmy’s cultural conservatism. Would a more moderate nominee (say, George H.W. Bush, the last challenger standing against Reagan’s nomination) have lost to Carter in 1980? Hard to imagine that, either; aside from the terrible objective condition of the country that bedeviled Jimmy in that year, and the realignment of the South that Carter temporarily forestalled, a more moderate candidate might well have kept John Anderson on the sidelines, winning with a lot more than Reagan’s 51%. And would a more moderate 1980 GOP winner have struggled in 1984, given the intensified realignment of the South and a cyclical economic recovery that Reagan had little to do with? Don’t know why.

George H.W. Bush, in fact, creates all kinds of problems for Cruz’s hypothesis. I’m guessing he believes Poppy won in 1988 as a “strong conservative” and lost in 1992 because he offended “the base” by signing a deficit reduction measure than included a tax increase (like Reagan did twice in his first term, BTW). So the radical turndown in the economy between those two elections didn’t matter, I suppose. And I guess we are supposed to believe the conservative alternative to Bush in 1992, Pat Buchanan, would have beaten Clinton.

The hypothesis doesn’t get much stronger more recently. Is there any Republican nominee who could have defeated Clinton in 1996? I don’t think so. If John McCain had won the 2000 nomination, would he have been weaker against Al Gore than was W. (the “strong conservative” who stressed his “compassion” in domestic policy and his “humility” in foreign policy, and who actually lost the popular vote and needed an assist from the Supreme Court to get to the White House)? Nothing obvious about that conclusion. In 2004, W. won a squeaker after pursuing a decidedly non-principled strategy of appealing to swing voters via three policy initiatives—No Child Left Behind, the Medicare Rx Drug benefit, and comprehensive immigration reform—that today are remembered on the Right as the most egregious of sell-outs.

If George H.W. Bush creates problems for Cruz’s argument, so does Mitt Romney. Mitt ran as the “conservative alternative” to John McCain in 2008. Would he have done better against Obama that year (where all the fundamentals made a Democratic victory very likely) than he did four years later? And who in the 2012 field—Santorum? Gingrich? Perry? Cain?—of “strong conservatives” would have actually won?

There are plenty of alternative rationales “strong conservatives” can offer for nominating their candidates—most notably the argument that one good right-wing presidency is worth three “moderate” administrations, in terms of the policy payoff. And many of the “constitutional conservatives” among whom Cruz stands tall are not primarily motivated by electability concerns, anyway; they think think they are doing the Lord’s work, and/or struggling against intolerable tyranny.

Nothing I know about Ted Cruz leads me to think the man’s taken a stupid breath in his life. But he’s making a stupid argument here, which is most logically interpreted as a cynical effort to tell grassroots conservatives exactly what they want to hear. And that’s sadly typical, insofar as firebrands like Cruz are forever congratulating themselves for their political courage even as they travel around the country making speeches guaranteed to get them carried around the room on their listeners’ shoulders. So while I don’t think all conservatives are stupid, evil or crazy, I do think some of them are cynical and lazy, which for self-styled paragons of principle, is actually more damning.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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