In general, hardcore partisans root for their party’s presidential candidate to face the weakest possible candidate from the opposing party. But for those who put the country and the common good first, it is far safer to have the two strongest candidates from each party square off, just in case one’s preferred candidate loses. Yet we may be at a moment in history when it would be better for the country and the common good if the Republican Party picks an extreme right-wing ideologue, namely Ted Cruz, rather than one of the candidates who would surely make a better president.
The Republican Party has been careening rightward for years. The result has been losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. The demographic changes in the country meanwhile are likely to favor future Democratic presidential candidates, unless the GOP alters its trajectory. Yet the Republican Party is still moving to the right. John McCain ran to the right of George W. Bush. Romney ran to the right of McCain. And all of the viable Republican candidates are running to the right of Romney.
Through a historical prism, we would expect to see the opposite. We would expect candidates to move to the center and try to break away parts of the opposing party’s winning coalition. But structural factors and the rise of the Tea Party have had the opposite effect. Bush, McCain, and Romney have all been deemed RINOs, sellouts who abandoned “true conservative principles.” In this way, the party has been able to avoid coming to terms with the consequences of their lurch to the right.
Cue Ted Cruz. Nominating Ted Cruz would mean putting forward an unassailably pure right-wing candidate. Ted Cruz offers everything the far right would like to see: irresponsible tax cuts for the rich, fevered opposition to Obamacare, climate change denialism, carpet bombing ISIS (and their victims, evidently), a preference for protecting Christian lives over the lives of Muslims refugees, 2nd amendment absolutism, and a culture warrior approach to social issues. While Donald Trump draws comparisons to fascists, Cruz states clearly that he likes and respects Trump, that Trump is “terrific.” He will not be outflanked on the right.
Outside of a major scandal, severe economic downturn, or national security emergency, it is difficult to imagine Hillary Clinton losing to Cruz in the general election. A landslide victory for Clinton is more likely. The right-wing of the Republican Party would then be forced to see the deep unpopularity of their extreme agenda.
We might then finally see a move back toward the center. The party might once again open itself up to constructive behavior and compromise. Compassionate conservatives might not feel totally abandoned by their party. And this shift might force the Democratic Party to pump the brakes on its rush to the left on social issues. It might help to halt the momentum of extreme individualism and reckless libertarianism.
In truth, there are a couple problems with this theory. One may be Ted Cruz’s complete and total absence of likability. Were Hillary Clinton to rout Cruz, hardcore conservatives might blame his noxious personality—his arrogance, inauthenticity, and smugness. At the same time, this argument is less likely to absolve his right-wing policy positions than charges that McCain and Romney lost because they were not sincere enough in their conservatism.
The bigger concern is structural. Republican members of Congress will still likely have a strong incentive to be more concerned about primary challenges from the right than general election challenges from the center. Unless the average Republican voter shifts in their policy preference and/or there is structural reform to the system—primary, redistricting, and campaign finance reform—a continuation of the status quo of broken, ineffective, divided government may very will persist.
Ultimately, I cannot root for Ted Cruz to win the primary, simply hoping the best case scenario plays out. His free market fundamentalism, foolish preference for dictatorship (the very conditions that gave rise to Islamist extremism and terrorism) and even mass murderers, indifference to protecting God’s creation, callous and sectarian response to the refugee crisis, and various other positions are simply too dangerous for him to be an October surprise away from the presidency. These positions are completely disconnected from both morality and reality. Having such an unsavory man and delusional ideologue so close to the presidency is just too risky from my own cautious point of view.