The GOP’s Ted Cruz problem

Why his brand of conservatism could damage his party more than Joe McCarthy and Jesse Helms ever did

Topics: Opening Shot, Ted Cruz, Joe McCarthy, Jesse Helms, 2014 elections, Editor's Picks,

The GOP's Ted Cruz problemTed Cruz (Credit: AP/David J. Phillip)

We’ve seen senators like Ted Cruz before. The historical comparison most commonly invoked involves Joe McCarthy, whose scurrilous red-baiting crusade in the early 1950s shattered the careers of innocent public servants and alienated McCarthy from his fellow senators, but also made him a folk hero on the right. Jesse Helms comes to mind too. The far-right North Carolinian was generally seen as more trouble than he was worth by his party’s establishment (there were those in the Reagan White House who not-so-secretly rooted for his defeat in a close 1984 campaign against Democrat Jim Hunt), but the intense animosity Helms stirred among liberals only enhanced his status among the conservative masses.

So it goes for Cruz, the freshman Texas senator who in his first two months on the job has baselessly asserted that Chuck Hagel might have received money from the North Korean government, reiterated his belief that there were 12 Communists on Harvard Law School’s faculty when he was a student there, and delighted in playing the role of ideological purist, even – or especially – if it puts him at odds with fellow Republicans.

The Hagel attacks have drawn cries of McCarthyism from the left, a torrent of negative media coverage, and earned Cruz a public rebuke from John McCain. But none of this has bothered Cruz, and for good reason: His standing within the conservative movement is only growing. Cruz has treated all of the negative attention as noise generated by Democrats, the liberal media and impure Republicans who are uncomfortable with a conservative true-believer rocking the boat in Washington. Conservative activists and media personalities have run with this narrative. As the Austin Statesman put it over the weekend,

You Might Also Like

Six weeks after being sworn in, Ted Cruz returned to Texas a commanding figure, the center of attention in the Senate and the national media, loathed by the Washington establishment and, for that, all the more celebrated by conservatives nationally who found in him a champion both very smart and, it seemed, utterly fearless. He had emerged from his baptism by fire more powerful for it, not only in national conservative circles but, by leveraging his new-found status, perhaps also in the Capitol he had so unsettled.

For Republicans who believe their party’s post-2008 direction has been self-destructive, Cruz’s rapid rise is a troubling development, because it really has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with the outrage he provokes from Democrats and the media. The thorough beating they took at the polls last fall perhaps should have prompted rethinking on the right. But conservatives’ appetite for Cruz shows that the GOP base’s animating spirit still hasn’t changed: Loud, aggressive and reflexive hostility to President Obama, the Democratic Party and any Republican who would dare contemplate compromise is still how “conservatism” is defined.

What makes Cruz and Cruz-ism a particular problem for his party is the demographic conundrum Republicans now face. Obama’s reelection (and Democrats’ unexpected gains in the Senate) was testament to the rising clout of the “coalition of the ascendant” – African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, women (particularly single women), Millennials. As Joan Walsh pointed out last week, Cruz’s Cuban-American background by itself won’t improve his or his party’s standing with Hispanics or other minorities. Instead, he’s appealing to the aging, overwhelmingly white core of the Republican base – voters whose grievances against the government in the 1970s and 1980s turned them against the Democratic Party and attracted them to Ronald Reagan and his ideological descendants.

So Cruz is now positioned as a major obstacle to the ideological modernization that the Republican Party is desperately in need of. If his brand of conservatism is treated as the gold standard of purity by the conservative media and conservative activists, Republican leaders will have a hard time moving the party away from its Obama-era orthodoxy. This could affect the calculations of Republican office-holders in the coming months, as Congress tackles immigration, guns and other issues on which the GOP is out of step with mainstream opinion. It could also lead to more trouble for the party in Senate races next year. In some states, like Cruz’s Texas, it really doesn’t matter whom the GOP nominates; the party will win anyway. But in other states, the nomination of a Cruz-like candidate can be an act of electoral suicide.

When firebrands like McCarthy and Helms were on the scene, the Republican Party was more geographically and ideologically diverse. In McCarthy’s time, for instance, liberal Republicans from the Northeast loomed large in the party – a key reason why Dwight Eisenhower, who governed as a moderate, managed to beat back the ultra-conservative Robert Taft in 1952. And through the 1980s, Republican presidential candidates regularly contested and won large industrial states. The political damage that McCarthy and Helms did to their party was limited.

But the GOP’s appeal has narrowed in the last decade or two. That doesn’t mean the party is doomed, but it does need a reboot – a reboot that’s difficult to envision as long as the party’s base continues to celebrate behavior like Cruz’s.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>