I have a column up at RollCall today suggesting that the GOP should root for a Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio clash. Cruz, skilled at channeling indignation, is a better choice than Trump — if the “populist” lane wants a candidate who can beat Hillary. Likewise, Rubio, who can communicate compassion and optimism, would stand a much better chance in the so-called “establishment” lane than Jeb Bush.
But aside from the fact that Cruz has a better chance of beating Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump, I’m constantly hearing from Republicans who believe he is more cunning and “flexible” than he is an ideologue. The good news it that this might mean he can pivot and run a more centrist General Election campaign in 2016.
The suggestion is that his bluster in the U.S. Senate and on the campaign trail has been the product of a very smart and calculating politician who might eventually move to the center — when that suits his interests. (The fact that Cruz formerly worked in the Bush administration is cited as evidence that at least some of his current image is a reinvention — which suggests he might one day reinvent himself again.)
One smart conservative even recently suggested to me that Ted Cruz is a modern Richard Nixon.
No — nobody is suggesting Cruz is “Nixonian” in the sweaty, paranoid Watergate burglary sense of the term. Instead, the idea is that Cruz might follow Nixon’s path — which was to be an ambitious young conservative in a hurry, who then transformed into a savvy centrist in order to win the White House and govern.
Remember, Nixon was once seen as a hard-core right-winger. The whole reason Eisenhower selected Nixon as his running mate was to balance the ticket — and keep the GOP’s Taft wing inside the tent. Running against Helen Gahagan Douglas, the anti-Communist Nixon once even famously declared she was “Pink right down to her underwear.” As Ross Douthat recently noted, “Nixon knew how to channel an angry, ‘who’s looking out for me?’ populism without letting himself be imprisoned by its excesses.” Sound familiar?
But later, Nixon became a champion of affirmative action, the EPA, and all sorts of liberal policies. It was ironic, which is exactly why the expression “Only Nixon can go to China” exists.
It’s impossible to predict the future, but trust me when I tell you this theory is widely believed and whispered about. There is a real sense that Cruz, having rounded up the support of grassroots conservatives who might propel him to the GOP nomination, could later pivot — and run as a “kinder, gentler” Cruz. He certainly has the credentials, pedigree, and moxie to pull it off. And, frankly, it might not be all bad. As Douthat averred, “there are times, and this might be one of them, when the country needs a little Nixon.”
Note: The author’s wife formerly advised Ted Cruz’s 2012 campaign for U.S. Senate.