Julian Zelizer: If Ted Cruz follows Barry Goldwater's path, he and his party could lose big
Contrary to conventional wisdom, GOP primary voters are more interested in victory than ideology, he says
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of the new book “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will announce Monday that he is launching his campaign to become the 2016 Republican nominee for president. Cruz has been positioning for this nomination almost since he entered the upper chamber in 2012. His announcement takes place at a bastion of conservatism, Liberty University, the institution founded by evangelical leader Jerry Falwell.
Cruz is going to run from the right. He has spent much of his short career in Washington blasting the “mushy middle” of his party (which might be news to most Democrats), which he dismisses as a “failed electoral strategy.”
During a recent visit to New Hampshire, where he vowed to eliminate the Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service, Cruz said that “I’m pretty sure, here in New Hampshire, y’all define gun control like we do in Texas: Gun control is when you hit at what you aim at.”
Fifty years ago, another Republican senator ran this kind of campaign, Arizona’s Barry Goldwater, who took on President Lyndon Johnson. Cruz will test the conventional wisdom that Goldwater’s strategy was and remains a failure.
When Republicans voted to nominate him in 1964, Goldwater told the delegates that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice no virtue.” When the icon of moderate Republicans, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, spoke to the convention, the delegates hissed and booed.
The outcome was far from great for the GOP. Johnson defeated Goldwater in a landslide election that brought in huge liberal Democratic majorities that passed the exact programs that conservatives abhorred.
Although Goldwater was clearly wrong when he ran in 1964, Cruz thinks that the times have changed.
Is he right?
Right now, the chances are not great. If Cruz really sticks to this strategy of extremism, he faces very long odds of making it to the White House. The strategy might help him to garner some primary votes against Jeb Bush in red states, but it is not an approach with a great track record.
Even as the Republican Party has shifted to the right in recent decades, Republican candidates who have obtained the nomination, and those who have also won the presidency, always developed campaign themes that allowed them to appeal to broader coalitions than voters on the extremes.
Ronald Reagan had anti-communism and tax cuts to attract voters into one big tent, and George H.W. Bush had a thousand points of light. His son George W. Bush emphasized policies tied to “compassionate conservatism” to prove that he was not an extreme zealot.
Even Republicans who didn’t win in the general elections, like John McCain and Mitt Romney, did not win the primary and caucus tallies by only playing to the base. Notwithstanding the conventional wisdom, even in primaries it seems that Republican voters understand the importance of finding someone who has the potential to win in November.
This coming election will be tough for Republicans. As all the experts have shown, the electoral college math does not favor the GOP. Some experts have predicted that Democrats have over an 80% chance of winning the Electoral College. According to the Washington Post, if one looks at the states where the margin was narrow in the 2012 election, five currently favor Democrats (Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania) while in others, like Colorado, Democrats have a very good chance of winning as a result of demographic trends, namely growing minority populations that favor their party’s nominee. Barring any dramatic changes in the coming months, Democrats will also have a very strong and seasoned nominee in Hillary Clinton.
Cruz is also not just someone who defends extremism but a politician who can easily be tied to the congressional obstructionism that has turned off so much of the electorate. The Republican Party has been dragged down by the kind of politics that voters have observed in Washington. In 2014, congressional approval ratings plummeted to 14%. As the new year began, the approval ratings were only slightly better: just 16%.
This is the congressional Republicanism where Cruz comes from. Many voters who like conservatism and the GOP don’t love what their representatives are doing on Capitol Hill. The kind of scorched earth, always say no to anything politics has not done well in terms of the favorability ratings. There have been few practitioners of this style of legislative politics as prominent as Cruz. During his campaign for the presidency, he might pay the price for the kind of politics that brought him great attention in Congress.
When Goldwater squared off against Johnson in 1964, the President predicted that there would be a “frontlash” of Republican and independent voters who would move way from the GOP just because Goldwater was at the top of the ticket. This was Johnson’s response to predictions of a backlash in the South from Democrats who were angry about civil rights. The frontlash, Johnson explained to Bill Moyers is “liberals, independents, moderate Republicans.”
The electorate is not as likely to experience any dramatic swings like we saw in Midwestern states in 1964, where solidly Republican areas went Democratic because they were scared off by Goldwater, but a Cruz campaign could be exactly what Democrats need to cement victories in the swing states where the outcome is still uncertain.
Monday, Cruz will bask in the spotlight of his announcement. But Republicans are going to have to really think hard about whether they want to put all of their electoral eggs in this volatile basket which, at least based on the history, has a very slim chance of winning.