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GOP leaders hate Ted Cruz, but he may be their last best hope

The hero the GOP deserves.
The hero the GOP deserves.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ted Cruz's quest for the GOP presidential nomination has been hampered, from the start, by the reality that the vast majority of influential DC Republicans simply can't stand the guy. No other candidate in the race gets articles like this written about him:

It's not unheard of for a young senator with a thin résumé to get a presidential nomination (ask John Kennedy or Barack Obama), but normally a person in that position needs some older patrons who like him and think he'd be a good standard-bearer for the party. Cruz doesn't have that. Quite the opposite. Party leaders in both houses of Congress hate his guts and think his antics have been an impediment to their basic goals of winning elections and passing bills.

But if Republicans stop and think about it for a minute, they may find that even if they don't like Cruz they can live with him. As a nominee, the absolute worst Cruz could do is lose. As president, Cruz would govern in line with congressional Republicans' policy preferences. Donald Trump, by contrast, risks being a total fiasco as nominee and could be even more damaging if he managed to win the election. And for all of Cruz's many flaws, there is serious reason to believe that he could do a better job than anyone else in the field of stopping Trump.

Republican leaders' beef with Cruz is personal

Cruz is so loathed by Republican Party congressional leaders and most of the party's big-time political operatives that many journalists are inclined to offer deep and nuanced explanations of that hatred's origins. But at a high level, the story is pretty simple: Cruz is not a team player.

American politics in 2015 is very sharply polarized, but US legislative leaders lack strong tools to force members of their caucus to go along with leadership plans. They count on their members recognizing that whatever disagreements they may have from day to day, they will be more effective as a team if they stick together when it counts.

Cruz does not stick together.

And when he defects from leadership-driven strategies, it's not because he needs to run for reelection in a tough state. Disloyalty from a Mark Kirk or a Joe Manchin is forgivable on tactical grounds. It's often not even really ideological in nature. Elizabeth Warren may annoy Democratic leaders with her occasional crusades, but on some level the strength of her convictions and the depth of her knowledge commands respect.

Cruz does things like push his colleagues into a government shutdown for essentially personal gain. He's pursued brinksmanship as a tactic to build his national profile, grow his personal email list, and lay the groundwork for his presidential campaign. His ideas haven't advanced conservative policies and pretty clearly aren't designed to advance conservative policies. They are self-centered, and it understandably drives his colleagues nuts.

The 2016 nomination is serious business

But for all the reasons that Cruz's colleagues find him aggravating, they have relatively little reason to actually fear the idea of a Cruz administration.

The whole thing that is so egregious about Cruz is that he doesn't really disagree with the rest of the party about major policy questions. He likes tax cuts, and so do they. He wants to repeal Obamacare. He wants to curb environmental regulations. He wants to make abortion illegal. And unlike Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, he agrees with most congressional Republicans about immigration. DC Republicans are disgusted by the way he puts his own interests over the party's, and they don't want him to lead their party. But if he did lead their party, his interests and the party's interests would be aligned, and there's no reason to think he would govern in a heterodox or problematic way.

The specter of Trump winning the nomination, by contrast, would be a total disaster.

Trump, unlike Cruz, has no real ties to the conservative movement as it exists. He's never worked in government or held elected office. As a businessman, he happily donated to Democrats. His public pronouncements over the years have been all over the map ideologically, and even in his current guise as a conservative Republican he's espoused heterodox opinions on Social Security, Medicare, and foreign policy.

Either Trump or Cruz would likely make for a weak general election candidate. But with Cruz, the worst-case scenario is the GOP does poorly in 2016 and lives to fight another day. The best-case scenario is he wins and implements an orthodox conservative agenda. With Trump, winning the election might actually be worse than losing — it would mean a fundamental change in the nature of the party and who leads it. A basic loss of control over the coalition by the people who've been running it for a generation. Beating Trump absolutely has to be job number one.

Ted Cruz stands the best chance of beating Trump

The good news for Republicans is that Trump, despite his large and enduring poll lead, is eminently beatable. Primary voters change their minds late all the time, and Trump's actual level of support is well below 50 percent. What the party needs is someone who can consolidate the non-Trump vote and bring him back down to earth.

But this is where things get tricky.

What is needed, in essence, is an evangelical Christian with orthodox conservative views on immigration and economic policy. Which is to say that what's needed is Scott Walker. But Walker's campaign already crashed and burned for reasons that are mysterious even in retrospect. That's left the party establishment with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio as flawed champions. Flawed in part because their political personas overlap to such a degree that they undermine each other. But flawed most of all because as non-evangelicals with significant track records of ideological deviation on immigration, they simply don't have an obvious route toward eating away at Cruz's support among the Christian right and the ideologically rigid.

By contrast, Cruz clearly could pick up the votes that are currently going to Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Chris Christie if more establishment-minded figures started swinging behind his campaign.

They don't want to do that, of course, because they hate his guts and because he's a very weak general election candidate. Those are two very good reasons not to back someone. But with each week that Trump maintains his lead, those reasons have to look less and less compelling.

VIDEO: Donald Trump questions Ted Cruz's faith