Democrats beware: Don’t underestimate Ted Cruz

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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How many liberal pundits, bloggers and commentators have attacked first-term Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in personal terms of contempt and ridicule? Almost all.

There can be little doubt that the GOP congressional strategy of holding up approval of the budget, causing a government shutdown, in return for repeal of ObamaCare was ill-founded. Forgive me, let me use a better word:  it was stupid. On Tuesday The Washington Post/ABC poll found that 80 percent of the national sample opposed the shutdown, including two of three Republicans or GOP-leaning independents and even a majority who support the Tea Party movement. And 53 percent of all respondents blame the GOP for the shutdown, versus 29 percent who blame President Obama.

But like Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who had Cruz in his class as a law student, I don’t impugn the Texas senator’s motives. He is wrong, but he can be sincerely wrong. Dershowitz reminded TV viewers during a recent interview that Cruz was brilliant and that his views were founded on strong conservative principles.

Many Democrats joke that they are delighted that Cruz has become so popular, saying he would be the easiest Republican to beat. Maybe so. If he doesn’t expand his political base beyond the Tea Party, he surely is not electable in the general election. The Post/ABC poll found that unfavorable opinions of the Tea Party among the national sample of all parties exceed favorable opinions nationwide by more than 2 to 1: 59 percent to 26 percent.

Still, I believe there are three misperceptions about Cruz’s political future and viability as a presidential candidate that could lead Democrats to underestimate him.

First, he is generally seen as being too extreme on the issues. But we all know that this could be an advantage in the race for the party nomination — and having a core and enthusiastic ideological base is, historically, a must to be successful in the general election.

Second, Cruz is said by many Democrats to be too polarizing to be electable in the general election. I tend to agree. But we forget that despite his divisive primary race, when he won the Republican nomination in Texas against the establishment-endorsed candidate, Cruz won the general election by an overwhelming margin of 56 percent to 41 percent — the first Hispanic to be elected to the U.S. Senate in the state. He must have won a substantial percentage of Hispanic voters and political independents, as well as conservative Democrats, to accumulate that statewide percentage among Texas general-election voters.

Finally, history should teach Democrats not to minimize the appeal of a Republican who seems too extreme, from a traditional liberal Democratic perspective, to win the general election among more centrist voters.

I remember what my late father told me about a candidate he ridiculed and hoped would be nominated by Republicans because he was certain he would be the easiest to defeat in the general election. My father was an FDR liberal and never voted for a Republican in his life. When this Republican candidate was running, my father joked he should write him a check to help him win the Republican nomination. Most other liberals in the Democratic Party establishment agreed.

This candidate was also seen as a divisive within the GOP. After all, he ran against an incumbent Republican president unsuccessfully in the preceding race and won 23 states out of 50 in party primaries and caucuses. Many Republicans blamed him for the defeat of that incumbent in the general election.

Yes, you’ve guessed it — his name was Ronald Reagan. In 1980, he won 44 states over the Democratic incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, winning by a substantial margin of 10 percent. In 1984, the “unelectable extremist Grade B movie actor,” as my dad had called him in 1979, was reelected by the highest electoral vote margin in history — 525 electoral votes out of 535, winning 49 out of 50 states and a popular vote margin of 59 percent to 41 percent.

So fellow Democrats: let’s debate the issues with Ted Cruz and win the election on the issues. If we think it’s better to engage in personal attacks and ridicule, and not take Cruz seriously, think again.

Think of Ronald Reagan.

Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, in which he specializes in crisis management. He is special counsel to Dilworth Paxson of Philadelphia and the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.