Reagan and Cruz: Unelectable
For political veterans, much of what we're starting to hear about Ted Cruz has an eerily familiar ring. Too extreme. Unelectable. Scares people. A radical, not a conservative.
The American people will hear a lot about Cruz's extremism in the year ahead, just as they were told about Reagan’s. It may cause them to hesitate before supporting him. But over the course of the campaign, they'll be able to make that determination for themselves. In fact, Ted Cruz represents the mainstream of conservative thought in this country, just as Reagan did twoscore years ago. Reagan's victory vindicated everything we'd been saying for twenty years. A Cruz win next year would do so again.
Precisely 36 years ago, Reagan was on his way to the Republican nomination. George Will and the church ladies of the party were concerned, even trying to lure former President Ford into the race. Reagan was just too conservative to get elected. A few years earlier, Will had described Reagan's support as "kamikaze conservatives who thought the 1964 Goldwater campaign was jolly fun." The reasonable, establishment Republicans settled on Bush 1 as their candidate, and it was game on. Marco Rubio is, or will be, their choice this time. Same song, same singers.
Even those of us in the Reagan campaign had concerns. In January of 1980, Reagan trailed Carter 62-33. This in spite of the fact that our embassy in Iran had been overrun, and hostages taken, a couple months before. Carter had earlier been openly humiliated by Brezhnev in Afghanistan. A weak economy and soaring inflation combined to give us the worst of both worlds: stagflation. The previous summer, Carter had complained to the American people about their malaise. He seemed to be in over his head. In the face of all these troubles, Carter still had a 2-1 lead. Reagan was too extreme.
Reagan never led in the polls. In the weeks leading up to the election, no reputable national pollster was calling for a Reagan win. The consensus was a coin toss. His ten-point margin was predicted by absolutely no one.
Why were the polls so off in 1980, right up to election day? Were "shy Tories," conservatives too timid to identify themselves, responsible? Possibly, but I've always believed there were doubts about Reagan right up to the end. People had soured on Carter, but they weren't ready to hand the nuclear button to Reagan until the last days of the campaign. In the very end, they decided he really wasn't an extremist, and the dam broke.
If Cruz is the nominee, I expect a similar dynamic in 2016. People don't want to elect Hillary, but they will hesitate before going for Cruz. Once Cruz clinches the nomination, he will be able to address these concerns, just as Reagan did so long ago. The conservative case is strong, and we could have no more able a champion than Ted Cruz, one of the most skillful advocates in the country. If we believe in our principles, we, and he, won't hesitate to lay them out for the public to judge.
As a campaigner and a natural politician, Cruz is no Reagan, or Rubio, for that matter. He's more comfortable, and at ease, arguing a case before the Supreme Court than he is as a political speaker. You can see him trying to improve, and it's sometimes painful to watch. But he'll get better as the campaign unfolds. He's good enough.
Reagan probably would have lost to Carter in 1976, just as Cruz probably would have lost to Obama in 2012. The timing of these things has to be just right. Ronald Reagan was the direct political descendant of Barry Goldwater, who had been destroyed in 1964. Sixteen years later, the American political landscape was unrecognizable. People were receptive to Reagan only in 1980, not before.
There are a lot of parallels between 1980 and today. Economic malaise, war weariness, and a general sense that things are spinning out of control. Carter and Obama have both been weak commanders in chief. Back then, we were worried about the Soviet Union. Today it's radical Islam. Then we had Reagan.
Now we have Cruz.
Fritz Pettyjohn is a former Alaska state legislator; an Alaska chairman of Reagan for President, 1979-1980; and a co-founder of the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force. He blogs daily at ReaganProject.com