Ted Cruz and the Matter of the Mushy Middle

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Sen. Ted Cruz lit up the Iowa Freedom Summit on Saturday: “Talk is cheap,” he told conservative activists before he slipped in a Biblical allusion: “The Word tells us you will know them by their fruit.” That is, the proof’s in the pudding.

And Cruz was just getting rolling; he challenged his potential rivals for the 2016 Republican nomination to, in effect, put up or shut up:

If you say you oppose the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty, show me where you stood up. If you say you support life and you support marriage, show me were you stood up and fought. If you say you say you’ll stand up to the Washington establishment, the career politicians of both parties that got us in this mess, then show me where you stood up and fought.

Cruz received massive applause when he called for the complete repeal of Obamacare, the lockdown of the US-Mexico border, the rollback of EPA, and the abolition of the IRS.

Of course, other GOPers, also in Des Moines on Saturday, made similar points in their speeches, and other GOPers have also walked the walk.

Still, Cruz’s analysis is worth examining, because he is perhaps the most articulately consistent in making the the “stand up” point and explaining what it means for the 2016 general election. As Cruz says, activist can’t let the leadership say one thing and do another. Indeed, in the wake of the recent fiasco over the fetal-pain legislation in the House, Cruz’s critique takes on new force.

So even those Republicans who might not support his candidacy should consider his argument about winning a year from November.

At the Myrtle Beach Tea Party gathering on the 18th, Cruz made fun of “Washington Graybeards”—his term for the loss-prone elite Republican consultant class—for giving the rest of us lectures on how to win elections. Their advice, Cruz continued, always seems to be that the GOP should move to the “mushy middle.”

To which Cruz answered: “If we nominate another candidate in the mold of Bob Dole or John McCain or Mitt Romney, the same people who stayed home in 2008 and 2012 will stay home in 2016 and the Democrats will win again.”

Speaking of Republicans losing, we should remember that it was less than two years ago, in the wake of Romney’s defeat, that the DC Graybeards at the Republican National Committee (RNC) issued an “autopsy” report—that was their chosen phrase—for the GOP. And one of their signature conclusions was that in order to win, the GOP had to move to the middle, notably on immigration.

Yet interestingly, as we know, spurred by grassroots activists, the GOP mostly went in the opposite direction, towards a more hawkish position on border security—and won big in the 2014 midterms.

So who’s right today? Cruz? Or the Beltway Graybeards? In seeking the answer to this question, we might bear in mind that the fate of the Republican Party in 2016—an election that RNC chairman Reince Priebus calls “do or die” for the Party—is hanging in the balance.

So let’s take a closer look at this matter of the mushy middle. Is it the path to triumphing victory? Or the way to drowning defeat? (Cruz has also used the word “milquetoast” as a synonym for “mushy middle,” but for the moment, we’ll stick with “mushy middle.”)

As a matter of simple mathematics, the Graybeards might seem to have a point: It is necessary for a political aspirant to win a majority of the two-party vote—and yes, that means winning the middle quintile of voters. But politics is a bit more complicated than mathematics: Sometimes, to win, one must start out at the edge, build a strong base, and then work to win over the middle.

We can find proof of that point in Cruz’s own electoral career.

In 2012, Cruz—never before elected to anything more than the editorship of the Harvard Law Review—entered Texas’ GOP Senate primary to succeed the retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; his principal opponent was David Dewhurst, the longtime Lieutenant Governor. Dewhurst was not only the choice of the Austin GOP Establishment, but he was also a wealthy “self-funder.” And so of course he was the early favorite. Indeed, a poll taken in November 2011, six months before the primary, showed Dewhurst ahead of Cruz, 50 percent to six percent. Underfunded, Cruz was the decided underdog; yet he kept on going—and gaining.

In the primary balloting in May 2012, Dewhurst held the lead, with 44 percent of the vote, but Cruz had pulled to a relatively close second, at 34 percent. And crucially, the frontrunner had fallen below the 50 percent threshold, and so Dewhurst and Cruz both moved on to the runoff. In that second vote, in July, Cruz came from behind and bested Dewhurst, 57 percent to 43 percent. It was an astounding victory for Cruz—and proof that the Tea Party still had its mojo.

And then, of course, in the November 2012 general election balloting, Cruz defeated Democrat Paul Sadler, 56:40—a margin of slightly more than 16 points. In other words, the “mushy middle” rallied to Cruz, in both the primary and the general. So much for the idea that one must start in the middle to win the middle. Instead, Cruz did it his way: He built a rock-hard base on the right, and then, from that fortress, he ventured out to win over centrists.

We have seen this argument—mushy middle vs. rock-hard base—played out before.

Nearly half a century ago, Ronald Reagan was derided by the GOP Graybeards of his day as too “right-wing” to be electable. Yet the Gipper proved the insiders wrong: Coming from nowhere, he won the 1966 Republican gubernatorial primary, and then went on to win the general election by a million votes. It was the first time since 1954 that Republicans had won the Sacramento statehouse.

Then, in the 1970s, as Reagan geared up to run for the White House, the same argument—mushy middle vs. rock-hard base—played out again. In 1975, Reagan spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington DC, declaring, “Our people look for a cause to believe in.” But what sort of cause? What message would galvanize the voters? His answer: In making the case to the nation, Republicans don’t need “pale pastels,” but rather “bold colors, which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people.”

That was the Reagan idea: bold colors, another way of saying rock-hard-base. It was the same idea that George Washington had outlined two hundred years before when he declared, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.”

Reagan made his bold-colors argument when he challenged Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. As we know, Reagan fell short in that campaign, but the results of the 1976 general election, Ford vs. Democrat Jimmy Carter, speak to the wisdom of the mushy middle strategy.

If the only thing that mattered was grabbing for the mushy middle, Ford should have done fine. After all, he agreed with Carter on many of the biggest issues of the day, including better relations with the Soviet Union, passage of the Panama Canal Treaty, and “choice” on abortion. Moreover, during the ’76 Republican primaries, Ford had relentlessly attacked Reagan’s plan for a 25 percent cut in federal spending; so by that logic, Ford went into the general election as a staunch defender of the federal status quo.

In other words, by any reckoning, Ford was firmly ensconced in the mushy middle. And yet, of course, Carter won the election. And how did a former one-term governor of Georgia defeat an incumbent president? Answer: Carter was the fresh face, the new broom; he promised, among other strategies, a new approach to controlling federal spending, which he called “zero-based budgeting.” Now some will say that Carter was too incompetent or dishonest to accomplish anything good, but that became obvious only in retrospect. All that the voters knew in 1976 was that Carter was claiming the mantle of energetic reform.

Jerry Ford was a good man, but not a strong candidate. And so, like Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, he lost to the Democrats.

So now we can see better the consequences of the two Republican visions: Cruz in Texas in 2012, and Ford in the national election of 1976. That is, mushy middle vs. rock-hard base. Now of course, some will say that the two elections are not comparable, because Cruz was running in just the state of Texas, whereas Ford was running nationwide. That’s a fair point, all about comparing apples to oranges. So let’s compare apples to apples: two presidential elections, back to back. Yes, let’s enter into evidence the 1980 election, in which the same Ronald Reagan—he of the rock-hard base of “bold colors”—ran against Carter, and won in a landslide. In other words, the mushy middle that rejected Ford in 1976 turned around and embraced Reagan in 1980.

The lesson of history is clear: Yes, elections are won in the mathematical middle, but a strong candidate, with a strong message, can transform the political mathematics.

So now we can take a look at the likely politics of 2016: In many ways, the two parties would seem to be evenly matched; the Democrats won the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, while the Republicans won the 2010 and 2014 midterms. (And as we consider the fact that the GOP has more seats in the House than any time in nearly a century, we can recollect, once again, the folly of the RNC’s “autopsy” report.)

Indeed, if we drill down on some of the issues of 2016, it’s evident that the country is not only deeply divided, but moving in different directions—in some places to the left, in some places to the right.

For example, on certain issues, such as gay marriage and marijuana legalization, the country is clearly moving to the left—or, if one prefers, to a more libertarian stance.

Meanwhile, on other issues, the picture is mixed: On taxes and economics and income distribution, many Americans are rallying to, say, the message of Elizabeth Warren, while others are saying, “Not one more dime should go to DC!” So which side has the edge, issue-wise? The fact that the Obama administration chose to make its 2015 State of the Union message an exercise in class-warfare suggests that it’s confident that the polling data are on its side.

In response to this class-warfare onslaught, Republicans should of course stand strong for free enterprise and limited government. Yet at the same time, we might ask ourselves: At a time when the top 1 percent are said to own half the world, will Republicans be at an advantage, or disadvantage, 2016-wise, if the battleground is the Obama plan to raise taxes on the one percent and cut taxes for the middle class? Do Republicans want to be known as the party that defends, for example, the “trust fund loophole” above everything else? Looking ahead to what’s sure to be a close-fought election next year, do Republicans really want to carry that much water for the rich—especially when the wealthiest of the wealthy are mostly donors to the Democrats?

So maybe it would be good strategy for the Republicans to develop new issues—that is, identify new dividing lines and set off the distinction with the Democrats in the boldest possible colors.

Republicans already understand that national security is a powerful issue, but, in addition, there’s the emerging nexus between national security and homeland security. We can start with counter-terrorism: Even the White House admits that the President made a mistake in not attending the Charlie Hebdo march in Paris on January 11. So here’s a question: Come to think of it, which Republicans were in Paris?

Closer to home, the hot-button issues are immigration and law and order. The human wave that crossed the border in the spring and summer caught the attention of the country, and contributed to the defats of a half-dozen red-state Democrats in November.

Then, of course, the troubles in Ferguson, Missouri, starting in August and the assassination of two New York City policemen in December. Once again, Democrats were thrown on the defensive.

And just this month came the release of the new Clint Eastwood movie, American Sniperwhich is breaking box office records. Even the liberal Daily Beast has had to admit, “American Sniper is a bona fide cultural phenomenon.”

The late Chris Kyle was a bold-colors American patriot if there ever was one. Defending his honor should be a project of every Republican seeking to build a rock-hard base.

Yet interestingly, for the most part, the GOP has been silent on these issues. Yes, the GOP has been noisy on ISIS overseas, but it has said little about law-and-order here at home. A few voices, such as Robert W. Patterson here at Breitbart News, have cited the immanence of the issue, but it’s hard to hear the chorus across the GOP.

Indeed, it appears that the Republican Establishment—the GOP Graybeard champions of the mushy middle—have been deliberately downplaying these hot-button populist issues. For Beltway Republicans, pale pastels, it seems, are much to be preferred over bold colors.

On Fox News’s Political Insiders show on January 18, former Republican Congressman John LeBoutillier—a conservative outsider all his career—made the point that the GOP leadership, was once again sending a powerful message to activists: Get lost. (And that was before the recent abortion-vote fiasco, which calls into question the basic competence of the House Republican leadership.)

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush, who seeks to lead the post-2014 GOP, is unabashed in his championing of “comprehensive immigration reform.”

As Cruz said to the Tea Partiers in South Carolina, “There is a better way.” That better way, Cruz continued, is for the Republican leadership to respect the views of the activists after the elections—and not just when they need their energy and enthusiasm to win elections. As Cruz said in a recent interview, “We need to honor our commitments.” He continued, “Republicans all over the country campaigned, saying, ‘If you give us a Republican majority in the Senate, we will stop President Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional amnesty.’ We should do exactly what we said we would do.”

Whereupon Cruz reiterated his message, which might be called the Four R’s: Repeal Obamacare, Repeal Common Core, Roll Back EPA regulation, and, for good measure, Repeal the IRS. Will the Graybeards heed the Tea Partiers on any of these issues? Only time will tell.

And here we can pause to dwell, once again, on the issue of immigration: It was, after all, the border issue that began the process of nationalizing the 2014 election—turning it into a red wave.

Yet by now it’s perfectly obvious that a) the Republican leadership is not really interested in overturning the Obama amnesty, and b) that elite Republicans aren’t interested in making the 2016 elections a referendum on immigration policy. And a big factor in this pale-pastel thinking, of course, is the influence of the US Chamber of Commerce—which never met a cheap foreign worker it didn’t like. The Chamber is perfectly willing to work with Silicon Valley Democrats, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, in order to have its way on the immigration issue. If these elitists had their way, “comprehensive immigration reform” would be the law of the land—the activists be damned!

Meanwhile, of course, national Democrats are smiling: If demography is destiny, they figure that a few more years of open-borders will turn Texas into another California.

Fortunately, the GOP has Sen. Jeff Sessions and others, all of them willing to buck the power of the buck for the sake of American sovereignty and self-determination. But Sessions, influential as he is, is only a Senator: He has to deal with a House leadership that is, well, a lot less enthusiastic about border security.

To really turn the tide, we will need a president. And as Republicans Ford, Dole, McCain, and Romney all learned, the presidency cannot be won in the mushy middle. We need those bold colors.