America's liberals finally have a candidate they can wholeheartedly root for in the Republican primaries — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
There's been incredible temptation to root for Donald Trump, whose unfavorable ratings are sky-high and whose candidacy is tearing the conservative movement apart, but it's tempered by growing fear of what a Trump administration might actually look like. On the other hand, someone like a Marco Rubio is pretty scary in his own right, and much more likely to win a general election. And the basic reality is that given Republican Party control over Congress, any Republican administration is alarming to liberals, so fear of an electable Republican is palpable.
Enter Ted Cruz. Compared with the more mainstream Republicans in the vanishing "establishment lane," he's a much weaker general election candidate, running on a nakedly extreme platform and with plenty of intraparty enemies who'll guarantee a steady stream of bad press.
And compared with Donald Trump he doesn't offer any outlier downsides. He's not particularly tapping into the darkest impulses of the American people. His ideas, though extreme, are vetted through the same conservative policy apparatus as everyone else's. People who know him best don't like him, nobody thinks he's likely to win in November, and he's the Republican Party's last best hope to stop Trump. He should also be the liberal choice for anyone tempted to cross over in an open primary, or just for liberals sitting at home wondering who to root for.
Ted Cruz can (maybe) stop Trump
First things first: He needs to beat Trump. It's a tall order but not impossible.
Trump continues to ride high in the polls, leading nationally as well as in most state polls taken in Ohio and Florida. But even though his national lead is large, fewer than 40 percent of Republicans say they want to vote for him.
In terms of states voting on Tuesday, Trump is at 40 percent in Florida, 36 percent in Ohio, 32 percent in North Carolina, and 33 percent in Illinois.
That means he is winning everywhere and is on track for the nomination. But he's not necessarily unbeatable. It's just that to beat him, Republican leaders would have to do something they've been loath to do and get behind Cruz. Cruz is second in delegates won, second in national polls, and generally the strongest non-Trump figure in the race. And even though establishment figures don't like him, there's some momentum in his direction as he's recently picked up endorsements from Utah Sen. Mike Lee and National Review.
He's also someone who doesn't owe anything to the party leadership and has no reason to back down in favor of a Marco Rubio or John Kasich no matter how well either man does in his home state. Republican leaders essentially have two choices — back Kasich and ensure a divided field against Trump, or rally behind Cruz and finally get to face Trump, who's never actually won a majority in any state one on one.
Cruz is a Texan, an evangelical, and a conservative's conservative, so he seems like a weak choice for the large states that will vote late in the primary season — California, New York, New Jersey, etc. — but he's essentially the only one available. And he does have one advantage over the other non-Trumps in the field: Like most Republican voters but unlike most prominent Republican elected officials, he's never flirted with the dreaded path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. Nate Silver even calculates that if it had been a two-man Trump-Cruz race all along, Cruz would be ahead of Trump in the delegate count.
Cruz is a weak general election candidate
One big thing liberals want in a Republican nominee is someone who is likely to lose in November, and Cruz fits the bill. Compared with a generic Republican, he would likely prove to be a weak general election candidate. Over the years he has deliberately positioned himself as more authentically right-wing than Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, or George W. Bush as part of a deliberate strategy to raise his national profile and help him win a presidential primary. It's a strategy that's worked quite well, but also one that poses costs in a general election.
Even worse for Cruz, he doesn't just have a reputation as an extremely conservative senator; that reputation is also so integral to his brand that it's impossible to imagine him shaking it off.
Cruz compounds this big-picture problem by running on a tax program that is almost laughably infeasible in terms of practical politics. Like most Republicans, he is proposing an enormous, highly regressive tax cut that would create a large budget deficit and disproportionately line the pockets of the wealthy. Unlike most Republicans, his tax plan also calls for the creation of a new consumption tax that would fall heavily on low-income families and especially anyone who doesn't work. That means the unemployed, students, the disabled, and — crucially — the retired.
The proposal is philosophically in line with conservative thinking on taxes but simply too politically toxic for election-minded politicians.
It's a bit like how few Democrats will come out and say they favor higher gasoline taxes, even though the logic of progressive ideology points in that direction. Except instead of higher taxes on gas, Cruz is proposing higher taxes on everything anyone buys anywhere.
Cruz would be a banal Republican president
But what really puts the icing on the cake for liberals is that even though Cruz is an unusually extreme and unappealing general election candidate, there's no reason to believe a Cruz administration would govern especially differently from any other Republican administration. You're rooting for someone who, if he became president, wouldn't really lead to policy outcomes that are any more conservative than anyone else's.
Just like Marco Rubio or John Kasich or anyone else, Cruz would sign the biggest tax cut that Republican senators from blue and purple states are willing to vote for, appoint anti-abortion judges, deregulate industry, etc.
In other words, while he wouldn't be a president liberals like, he wouldn't be a president liberals like less than any other Republican. Cruz is extreme relative to the GOP in the sense that he he's willing to publicly embrace conservative stands that more timid politicians shy away from, but they're all part of the same movement.
Indeed, for all Cruz's anti-establishment posturing since coming to Congress, his path to power — Princeton, Harvard Law School, Supreme Court clerkship, mid-list jobs in the Bush administration, solicitor general of Texas, insurgent primary campaign in a Texas Senate race — is perfectly conventional.
He's an anti-establishment candidate in the sense that he rails against the establishment a lot and most Republicans in Washington find him to be an annoying guy with questionable political judgment. But he's not a rogue actor in the same way Trump is and doesn't trample the basic norms of democracy in the way Trump does.
If anything, Cruz's abysmally bad personal relationship with congressional Republicans suggests he might be unusually ineffective in getting a conservative agenda passed. If nothing else, the feuding could be fun to watch.
The progressive choice for 2016 is clear
In Donald Trump, liberals have a candidate who would likely be a disastrous general election contender but who, if elected, might fundamentally undermine America's constitutional order. In Kasich, Rubio, and other potential establishment nominees, liberals have candidates who would safeguard the basic nature of the country but also very possibly get elected president and enact a hard-right agenda.
Cruz offers liberals the best of both worlds. His floor as a general election candidate is higher than Trump's, in the sense that loyal Republicans can be counted on to turn out for him, but his appeal to swing voters is awful. Yet in the White House there's no reason to think he'd be any more objectionable to progressives than any other Republican. That makes him the clear guy for liberals to root for.