The Great Conservative Myth

Goldwater book

Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. Invariably, soon after each defeat, some members of the party would allege that the outcome would have been different if only they had nominated a “true conservative.” Given that Ted Cruz, who is the most conservative national candidate since at least Barry Goldwater, offered himself as the savior of the right-wing of the party and got thoroughly rejected for the nomination, that’s going to be a hard argument to make from now on.

As many observers have noted about the rise of the Tea Party as well as the dismal showing of establishment candidates this year, conservative Republicans in office have not delivered on the many promises they  made to their base supporters. That fact alone does not fully explain Cruz’s failure.

In reality this country is not nearly as ideologically conservative as the zealots would like to believe. To be sure, there are portions of the country that consistently vote for true conservatives. That characterization applies mostly to the south although you can find other examples. In addition, there is strong support for what is often described as the conservative position on a number of specific issues. You can find social issue conservatives, fiscal conservatives, foreign policy neocons, but all those groups do not add up to a national majority. In fact, these various factions don’t even agree on what issues matter most.

Whatever else you say about Donald Trump, you can’t really call him a true conservative. Interestingly, Cruz kept making that argument and it did him no good. Republican voters weren’t looking for a reincarnation of Barry Goldwater.  They opted for someone who appealed to their fears and  prejudices.

What implications the defeat of Ted Cruz and the rise of Donald Trump have for the Republican Party and its candidates in this year’s General Election remain to be seen. Will “true conservatives” sit out the election? Will vulnerable Senate and House candidates distance themselves from the man at the top of the ticket? Will Republicans follow the advise of columnist Kathleen Parker and reconcile themselves to “lose the election with dignity”?

The Cruz Crash

Why didn’t Ted Cruz succeed in answering the prayers of all those true conservatives? One answer is that he ran into an electoral phenomenon in Donald Trump. However, that’s too easy a response and fails to take into account Cruz’s own responsibility for his loss.

Cruz entered the race as a much hated senator. John Boehner’s characterization of him this week as “Lucifer in the flesh” may be a clever turn of phrase but is a view  apparently shared by many of Cruz’s colleagues in Congress. His failure to get support from other elected officials was a glaring problem for his campaign.

He also made a huge error in not taking on Trump earlier in the campaign. Cruz praised Trump in the early going and acted like they were friends. That stance allowed Trump to develop momentum and gain early victories while other candidates dropped out. By the time Cruz got around to attacking Trump, it was too late and lacked credibility. Was it a failure of strategy or of nerve?

As the nominating process moved along, Cruz begin to look desperate. His choice of Carly Florina as his “running mate” had to be one of the most embarrassing moments in modern electoral history. Rather than leading to a bump in the polls, the decision became  fodder for every late night host’s opening monologue. As an aside, you do have to wonder if Florina will include her very brief stint as a veep candidate on her revised resume.

One of the ironies of Cruz’s loss is that Trump adopted the same scorched earth tactics that Cruz has employed in the senate. When the shoe was on the other foot, the Texas Senator didn’t know how to respond.

By the time Cruz withdrew from the race, his sterling conservative credentials proved to be no match for a opponent with no serious credentials and few if any clear beliefs or policies.  There’s plenty of room in the American political system for conservative views but little support for extreme conservative ideology.