Is Ted Cruz more radical than Donald Trump?

Story highlights

  • Tim Stanley: Ted Cruz has gone from being low in the polls and loathed by GOP establishment to being a potential front-runner
  • He says in rush to dump Trump, party elite may find themselves with a more radical ideologue, Cruz likely surprised to have a shot

Timothy Stanley, a conservative, is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)In "Through the Looking Glass," the Queen tells Alice: "sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." She might have choked on her grits, however, at the thought of Ted Cruz becoming the Republican nominee.

Until a few weeks ago he was low in the polls and loathed by the GOP establishment. Sen. Lindsey Graham joked about murdering him. But now, the impossible has happened: Cruz's unlikely emergence as the favorite to beat Donald Trump. His transformative win in Wisconsin. And even his unthinkable endorsement by Graham.
    Timothy Stanley
    Can Ted believe this is happening? And does he -- or his party -- really understand what it all means?
    The impossibility of this story begins with the very character of Ted Cruz. He has Cuban heritage but somehow wound up an evangelical. He is unquestionably a cultural conservative, yet that rhetorical flourish was honed at Ivy League schools. He later became defined as a tea party outsider, but he began his political career by working for George W. Bush's 2000 campaign -- an effort that backfired because, as he admitted later, he made far more enemies than friends. The question of likeability dogs him to this day.
    A lot of critics have written unpleasant articles about his face. In fact, it's hard to think of a candidate who has attracted such mean and spiteful commentary. For proof that he's both normal and soft-centered, one only has to view footage of him killing time during a debate break by playing with his daughter. All the same, the man is no Marco Rubio. While Rubio looked like he ought to win and lost in spite of it, Cruz is winning in spite of even George W. Bush -- a famously laid back man -- reportedly saying "I just don't like that guy."
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    But, then again, Cruz likely never imagined that he was going to be the front-runner. He thought he'd be running the classic conservative outsider candidacy: win Iowa, win the South, monopolize the religious vote. He narrowly pulled off the first part, the rest went wrong. Trump performed better among Southerners and evangelicals, which led many commentators to assume that Cruz was on the way out.
    But in this year of surreal turns, Cruz's assumption that he'd be the second-ranked candidate actually helped him survive the Trump tsunami. While the other candidates were focusing on big primaries, his staff was quietly preparing victories in caucuses and working hard behind the scenes to turn popular vote losses into more delegates than expected -- as happened in Louisiana.
    This approach paid off big time in Colorado, where Cruz campaigners achieved a clean sweep of all 34 delegates selected at byzantine conventions.
    Remember, this strategy was originally intended just to keep Cruz in contention against a mainstream candidate like Jeb Bush. But deployed against Donald Trump, in a year where the race is astonishingly close, it's actually turned him into the only credible choice for the establishment.
    For instance, I'm told that Cruz's people had every intention from the very beginning of exploiting Rule 40(b) to his advantage. This rule stipulates that only a candidate who has won delegate majorities in at least eight states can be nominated. It could be used to disqualify John Kasich -- perhaps leaving Cruz as the only lawful alternative to The Donald at the convention, presuming he himself is judged to have met the criteria.
    But there is yet another unexpected twist: In their rush to beat Trump, the party elite may find itself elevating a man who is even more radical than the person they're trying to beat.
    Trump is rhetorically extreme but on paper quite moderate. His shifting views on abortion are, I'm sure, the product of never having thought very hard about the subject -- and the occasional foray into anti-Muslim prejudice or the war over Christmas are cover for an instinctual liberalism.
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    Trump is for universal health care, protecting U.S. industry and withdrawing from world affairs. Cruz, by contrast, would be one of the most conservative men ever to head the GOP ticket. He favors the gold standard, rejects orthodoxy on climate change, and likes the flat tax. His foreign policy could be summed up as "whatever is best for America." He would carpet bomb ISIS, but only because it is an imminent threat. Libya, he would have avoided.
    The difference between Trump and Cruz is that Trump is just a populist. Cruz is motivated by philosophy -- a constitutionalism that has a libertarian streak. For example, Cruz does not personally approve of marijuana use but would allow the states to legislate on it. And his opposition to National Security Agency data gathering, the use of torture and ethanol subsidies all attest to his willingness to take on big government.
    They reflect the rugged individualism of a very individualist candidate, and point to the fundamental paradox of the Cruz candidacy. What has made it resilient and a bold contrast to Trump is also what could make it frightening to many voters: its cool, calculating stubbornness.
    I'm not of the view that Trump has lost the nomination. On the contrary, he remains the front-runner. But presuming that Cruz does win the nomination, there will have to be a reckoning. The party will probably discover that it can't force a running-mate or policy choices on a man who only ever does things his way.
    Cruz may discover that while the party is happy to dump Trump, it's not so happy to be dictated to by another maverick. Both party and candidate will find themselves on the receiving end of attacks by a Democratic National Committee overjoyed to run against an ideologue.
    Cruz's nomination would be a legacy of Trump's candidacy, and the way that it messed up the primary fight. It would change the GOP's problems but not end them. That, I fear, really is an impossible task.