Ted Cruz will be president if Democrats listen to Elizabeth Warren, warns Republican

A moderate Republican's counter-intuitive take is actually just a warning to Democrats to avoid class warfare

Published October 25, 2013 8:04PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

What's that, Daily Beast? "How Ted Cruz Can Win in 2016"? Oh, you are still around, and still doing this sort of thing? That's great. Let's take the bait, I guess.

Our dutiful "hot take" artist today is David Frum, the famous apostate Republican who has dedicated the last few years to building a new Republican Party that is more moderate, more rational and less dedicated to taking dead-ender stands on cultural issues. He is not, in other words, the sort of Republican Ted Cruz appeals to.

Frum has devoted more words to Cruz's savvy than to his worldview, but he has expressed a wish for the Tea Party to form a third party and "liberate Republicans from identification with the Sarah Palins and the Ted Cruzes who have done so much harm to their hopes over the past three election cycles." Comparing Cruz to Palin and saying he hurts the ability of Republicans to win elections would seem to make a "how Cruz can win" piece unlikely, but Frum's argument is not aimed at Republicans. And it's not wishful thinking. It's a dire warning of a dystopian future!

In this terrifyingly real scenario, the U.S. tips back into recession, Republicans win huge in 2014 and Democrats respond by getting more aggressively populist on economic and financial issues. These Democrats revolt against Hillary Clinton, and Obama's moderation, and embrace, instead, Elizabeth Warren. Warren, slightly oddly, decides to run against Clinton, and the bruising primary fight divides and weakens the party.

Cruz, meanwhile, capitalizes on the shutdown and his general reputation for being a huge dick all the time and handily wins the nomination. Then he moves to the center, sort of!

Ted Cruz, however, could offer the vice presidency to Chris Christie — and the Democrats’ post-2014 leftward veer frightened Republican donors enough that they pressed Christie to accept. Unlike Romney in 2012, Cruz’s conservative allegiance could not be questioned, freeing him to write the vaguest platform and conduct the most issue-free campaign of any Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Cruz delivered half his convention speech in Spanish and used the other half to rededicate the party to “the compassion of conservatism,” a subtle variant of an old phrase that delighted convention delegates.

This is how the story ends: Everything sucks so bad in the economy that everyone stays home and no one votes and Ted Cruz wins the election.

Disenchanted Latinos and young people stayed home. So did down-market white males, who seemed to react to Clinton with almost visceral dislike. In the presidential election of 2008, almost 58% of eligible voters had turned out, the highest level since the extension of the vote to 18-year-olds. In 2016, turnout dropped below 50% for the first time since 1996.

Republicans turned back the clock on the Obama election map. They recaptured Florida and Virginia, North Carolina and Nevada, Ohio and Iowa: moving back into the red column all the states won by George W. Bush in 2004. It was a desperately narrow victory, but it was enough.

Yes, this scenario depends on an eight-percent turnout drop from 2008 — a near-historic level of voter apathy — for an election involving the first female presidential nominee in American history. (Frum also has his numbers wrong. He's using voting-age population as opposed to voting-eligible, which removes non-citizens and ineligible felons from those counted. In 2008, voting-eligible turnout was 61.6 percent, and in 2012 it only dropped to 58.2 percent.) And look, Republicans aren't going to do better with whites against a Clinton than they did in two elections against Obama. (And this scenario doesn't depend on Cruz picking up Latino support, it depends on Latinos not voting.) So, no, I'm not terribly convinced, or scared.

As I said, this is meant primarily to be a warning to liberals. The entire column resembles "concern trolling," a (vastly overused of late) phrase meaning, basically, to express insincere sympathy for an adversary and then to offer purposefully unhelpful tactical advice to that adversary, in order to rile them up. But this column is, I think, quite sincere: Frum doesn't care for either left-wing populism or Ted Cruz-style right-wing populism. He is warning Democrats that enabling that wild-eyed radical Elizabeth Warren would be a terrible mistake. The bit about economic populism leading to Ted Cruz winning the presidency is just the dumb hook a Daily Beast piece needs to appeal to Tina Brown's trollish sensibilities. The actual argument in this piece is that Democrats musn't abandon the (money-friendly) centrism that the base is, at this point, very frustrated with.

I think Frum understands that it is exceedingly unlikely that Ted Cruz will be the next president, no matter what Democrats do between now and 2016. I also think he knows that the greatest threat to Democrats keeping the White House is probably Chris Christie, assuming he can survive a GOP nominating process decided in large part by people who already deeply loathe Chris Christie. (Frum's piece a month ago — yes, he's written two of these in a month — on how Cruz could win the nomination was easily more convincing than this one.)

Frum's slightly ulterior motive — and hell, it may not have even been Frum's conscious intent with this piece, but it's still part of the subtext — is an attempt to dissuade Democrats from making the most persuasive case against Chris Christie, should he become the nominee. There is, obviously, an opening to attack Christie on social issues — despite his moderate reputation, and his recent decision to give up the marriage fight in New Jersey, he's still an anti-abortion and anti-same-sex-marriage conservative Catholic — but the most obvious strategy would be to take a page from Obama's successful reelection effort and attack him from the left on economic and class issues. He's married to a banker, his policies will benefit the rich, and the rich already love and donate to him heavily. It is always in the moderate, business-friendly Republican's best interests to strongly discourage "class warfare"-based political appeals, because class warfare works.

Not that Warren would necessarily beat Christie! Warren is popular. Her message appeals to most non-rich people. But Warren (like Cruz) would have a large fundraising disadvantage in a campaign against a politician who already appeals to rich people on both sides of the aisle. She's also a professor and a Massachusetts liberal (yes, I know that Christie is a wealthy attorney from the Northeast but the politics of elitism are different for Democrats and for Republicans). But Warren probably won't run in 2016 anyway. And I still think a Cruz nomination is unlikely, when all the money is so in love with Christie, and while there is a Bush who still might want the job.

Still, a Cruz nomination is obviously possible. And if that happens, no matter who the Democrats pick, it would ensure that liberals turn out to vote.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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