Ted Cruz has studied history, and for once it’s not a good thing.
Ordinarily, when we speak of public figures and the study of history, we are warning that politicians have not actually studied history at all. As such, we are about to see them predictably repeat it in a detrimental fashion. Someone who had studied history would see the parallels with the past and be able to avoid plainly foolish actions and decisions. History is the litmus test of wise policy.
Unfortunately, not all of the lessons about historical failures are necessarily warning signs when looked at from a certain perspective. In some cases they can actually smell strongly of opportunity. It is starting to look to me like Ted Cruz happens to be one of those students of history who sees silver linings in historical clouds, and happens to be angling for them.
Since he announced his bid for President on the 23rd, Cruz has drawn a number of historical comparisons. He himself has drawn a connection with Reagan, while pundits on both sides of the aisle have spoken of Goldwater and Obama. Those comparisons are not exactly lacking in a certain factuality. However, I believe that, when we are studying history, we’re very much looking at the wrong political candidate. He may be talking Reagan, but I suspect he’s thinking Lincoln.
Let’s set aside the fact that he referenced history multiple times, and with a clear grasp of some of the details most miss. Instead, let’s focus very carefully on the very important time he did not reference the U.S. Civil War.
I am far from the first to refer to our current political shenanigans in D.C. as comparable to the situation prior to the Civil War. The “most polarized congress since the Civil War” camp has included political scientists like Christopher Hare, journalists like Mark Strauss, leftists like Barney Frank, and right-wingers like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Typically, these cries of divisiveness are intended to be warnings that we can expect Congress to become even less respectable and useful to the American people.
Usually these stark warnings tend to preface arguments in favor of inclusiveness. Beck, not known for being either moderate or pro-compromise, even went so far as to warn that the Republican Party needed to start moving towards the center at the very moment everyone else was celebrating the Republican takeover of Congress. Referring to Republican politics as being mired in the 1970s, he warned that the current state of political play is perfect for letting a moderate Democrat sweep the 2016 election for President.
“[Hillary Clinton] is now going to play the moderate,” Beck warned. “[Republicans] are playing politics circa 1975 and they’re not prepared for it. I think we have a very bad scenario headed our way.” In conclusion, he said, “someone is going to be able to play the middle ground between the evil Republicans and this President and I think it could get ugly.”
Senator Cruz, however, seems not to have gotten the memo. Pundits have been fast to point out that his announcement speech at Liberty University was so deeply divisive and partisan that Cruz has no chance of even winning the nomination, let alone the Presidency. Many people compared the speech, and particularly its promises, to the campaign of Barry Goldwater, who notoriously lost in a landslide to wet noodle Lyndon Johnson.
Left-wingers have been fast to point out how small Cruz’s base is. “Cruz has absolutely no appeal outside of the extreme fringe of the right wing base. Any marginally competent political strategist on the Republican side will fight against a Cruz candidacy,” quipped one pundit a few days later. Even fellow conservatives pointed this out in reaction. Jeff Kaufman, who chairs the Republican Party in Iowa, stated the case plainly: “It’s clear he wants to run as the Christian evangelical candidate.”
This strategy is unlikely to result in a successful presidential bid. If Cruz stays true to his speech, his appeal will be unlikely to extend much past the evangelical base, and many believe this to be bad news. After all, the numbers aren’t promising. During the notoriously Republican midterms, only 26% of the voters to turn out self-identified as evangelical white Christians, long considered to be a bastion of conservatism. Troublingly, 22% of those evangelicals voted against Republicans, electing to vote for Independents or even the occasional Democrat. This base Cruz appears to be appealing to is undersized and has cracks.
So what does this have to do with Ted Cruz studying history too well?
Senator Ted Cruz is a very smart man. He was educated in the Ivy League law schools of Princeton and Harvard, graduating cum laude and magna cum laude respectively. He was a championship-winning debater and public speaker. Though seen as an outsider and maverick, he knows the American government top to bottom, having served in all three branches as a 4th Circuit law clerk, policy adviser to Bush II, member of the Justice Department, Texas Solicitor General, and, finally, Senator.
He knows that Reagan was elected by directly appealing to and working with Democratic sensibilities. He also knows that, while Goldwater was destroyed at the poles, he is widely credited as the man who single-handedly rewrote American conservatism in the second half of the 20th century.
Most importantly, I strongly suspect he also remembers what most tend to overlook. While most people focus on the divisive and fractious state of American politics in the 1850s and fret about the sundering of the nation (not a realistic possibility today, folks), a few folks believe he firmly remembers what it meant for the American politics of the 1860s and 1870s.
Even though it had only been around for approximately two decades, the Whig party was an extremely powerful party heading towards the 1860s. They had been the party of Presidents Taylor and Fillmore as well as extremely famous and respected statesmen like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. However, the extremely partisan and vicious politics of the 1850s utterly destroyed the Whig Party. When that happened, the most extreme and radical elements of the Whigs defected to a new, radical conservative (in terms of modern definitions) party.
That new party’s members called themselves “Republicans.”
In only six years, the Republicans (staffed heavily by far-right ex-Whigs) went from having their very first convention to having the Presidency, most of the Cabinet, much of the Supreme Court, and a substantial portion of Congress. They would remain the dominant party for the next sixty years.
Now, I am not saying Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz is trying to destroy the Republican Party. I am, however, suggesting that Ted Cruz is an extremely intelligent man with a very, very skilled ability to speak and debate. If he crafted a Barry Goldwater-like speech to announce his candidacy it’s because he has studied the legacy of Barry Goldwater, and likes what he sees. If he is announcing a bid during the most divisive government in 150 years by appealing to a small (20% of 2014’s voters) but extremely conservative base at the cost of completely alienating the rest of the party, it’s quite possible that he is looking not at the divisiveness of the 1850s, but the parties that emerged from it.
His actions seem bizarre to many pundits, but to a student of history they are textbook examples for someone who is looking to capitalize on the current fragmentation of politics and the growing disgust with the current pair of parties. Whether the next decade produces a new, reimagined neo-conservative Republican Party (Goldwater) or a new, powerful party (Tea Party, perhaps?) built around the old party’s more radical elements (Whigs), he’s following the course of history with a very clearly and carefully crafted game plan.
So while many people are arguing that this “party outsider that does not play well with the Republican mainstream” needs to brush up on basic principles for political leadership or even just practical business leadership, I think Cruz is suggesting that his critics, particularly amongst the current Republican leadership, brush up on their history, because he’s actively planning that it will be repeating itself in the years to come.