Ted Cruz’s Reagan strategy: What’s behind his sinister plan for 2016

By Cruz's telling, the Tea Party of 2016 is like the conservative movement of 1980. There's just one problem

Topics: Ted Cruz, Ronald Reagan, Texas, Republicans, GOP, The Right, 2016 Elections, Editor's Picks, 1980, conservative movement,

Ted Cruz's Reagan strategy: What's behind his sinister plan for 2016Ted Cruz (Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed)

Ted Cruz gave a rip-roaring speech at the Texas Republican convention last week, pretty much confirming the speculation that he’s running hard for president (not that there had been much doubt). All accounts are that he was very well received by the ultra-right conservatives of the Texas GOP. They like their Angus steaks bloody and rare and he delivered.

First he laid out his agenda, which is actually quite clever:

… from repealing “every blessed word” of Obamacare and the Common Core educational standards, to auditing the Federal Reserve and standing with Israel and dissidents around the world. He even struck a populist note, saying, “the rich keep getting richer and richer, and everyone else gets left behind,” while those in the “corrupt, bipartisan cabal in Washington” succeed.

Mix together a dash of Rand Paul, a soupçon of Tea Party, a smidgen of standard Washington loathing and even a tiny skosh of Occupy Wall Street and you’ve got the basis for an unusual GOP amuse bouche. Ladle on some Ronald Reagan secret sauce and you’ve got a Republican recipe that actually sounds like it might work:

“There was a time when we had another president, like President Obama, we had Jimmy Carter,” he said to boos. “And all of us remember how quickly things can change.”

The senator, who at times has been a pariah within his own party in Washington and faced tough headlines over his role in the government shutdown last fall, said of Reagan, as he praised him for ending the Cold War: “All of the intelligentsia, all of the cognoscenti, they tittered at such uneducated, Philistine views. He didn’t have the sophistication, he didn’t have the nuance, he didn’t understand detente — which I’m pretty sure is French for surrender.”

He said “cognoscenti.” And his little dig at the French is a very Reaganesque kind of joke.

But he’s right about the bigger picture there as well. The intelligentsia did dismiss Reagan as a clown, to the extent that many of them literally couldn’t believe he could win. It simply wasn’t possible for someone with such a far-right hawkish worldview to become president. Surely someone with these simplistic ideas could never become president. He was nothing but an actor, for goodness’ sake. We know what happened. And one cannot help hearing the echoes of that point of view today when it’s taken as an article of faith that the American people must reject the GOP because of its extremism.



Cruz also made a case for himself as the new Reagan based upon a couple of structural factors that have not been commonly articulated by others:

“In 1980, we saw the Reagan Revolution, we saw in the face of stagnation, in the face of feckless, naive foreign policy, in the face of America getting weaker and weaker, we saw a grassroots movement that turned the country around … that same thing is happening today.”

That shows a conscious pivot from the domestic affairs that have dominated politics since the financial crisis back to foreign policy and national security, which have been traditional Republican strengths. (It’s likely this will become an even greater focus if a Democratic woman gets the nomination, playing into their usual “feminization” strategy in a literal way. Benghazi!™ is just the opener.)

But Cruz is also saying something else. He’s saying that the right-wing Tea Party of 2016 is analogous to the conservative movement of 1980 and that they are poised to take advantage of the opening Jimmy Hussein Obama has made for them.

At first blush you kind of have to wonder if he isn’t on to something. After all, Reagan came in at a time of deep economic … er, malaise. People were tired after many years of a war and the cultural turmoil that accompanied it. Racism was morphing from the old style into the new style, with some white people feeling threatened by a loss of their social and political power. The conservative movement that had been building since 1964 was taking over the GOP and the Democrats, after an intense period of reform in the wake of Watergate, had run out of steam.

Perhaps Barack Obama himself described that period the best when he also famously compared himself to Ronald Reagan in the 2008 campaign:

“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

Ted Cruz pretty much said the same thing about America today — except he left out one very important word: optimism. If there’s one thing that Ronald Reagan had that none of the avatars of the modern conservative/Tea Party movement have, Ted Cruz especially, it’s a sense of optimism. It’s not that the movement didn’t always, underneath it all, have the fearful revanchist cast it has today. It’s that Reagan was extremely skilled at making that paranoid worldview sound sunny and upbeat so he could appeal to a broad spectrum of the American public. And that is not a skill Ted Cruz has demonstrated thus far. In fact, the comparison one hears most often about Cruz is not the cheerful idealism of Reagan but rather the anger and bitterness of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (And that’s what his Tea Party followers love about him.)

It’s not entirely impossible that the conditions are ripe for a conservative comeback. Enough time has passed from the Bush Iraq debacle for them to reclaim their standard national security gripe about wimpy Democrats. The economy is stalled at best. And the reform spirit that ushered in the Obama administration spent itself on Obamacare and seemingly has nothing left. It’s not entirely daft to compare this moment to that moment in 1980.

But it’s highly unlikely that the Reagan revolution would have happened without Ronald Reagan. Ted Cruz is no Ronald Reagan. And neither is anyone else.

Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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