If none of the Republican “establishment” presidential candidates—Sen. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie, or Gov. John Kasich—is able to show signs of breakout power through the early nominating contests, the establishment will have to consider settling. Barring the ever elusive, last-minute “white knight” play, in which Mitt Romney is somehow declared the nominee by acclamation at the Republican National Convention, this likely means making a choice between Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, for whom the anti-establishment atmosphere this cycle has opened unusual amounts of space.
The conventional thinking is that Cruz represents the lesser of two evils for the Republican Party. Cruz may be exceptionally foul to their taste, but he is nevertheless a consistent conservative Republican who just happens, for his own cynical, brand-building purposes, to favor doomed procedural tactics. Whatever. Though his Republican colleagues in the Senate dislike him, this isn’t the first time they’ve had to deal with an ambitious junior senator getting in everyone’s way to pursue his own ends, and it won’t be the last. Perhaps they might even enjoy having him in the White House instead of the well of the Senate.
This first requires getting to the White House, though. Again, Trump seems like the worse of two bad bets to make it that far. His reckless lack of discipline and egregious lies, “braggadocio,” and racism appeal quite strongly to a slice of the Republican Party, but turn off most everyone else.
But there’s an argument that Cruz is an even worse bet. He makes little effort to appeal to people who are not conservative activists. The memory of the government shutdown that he instigated in 2013 will be wielded sharply against him. His net favorability, while not embedded quite as deeply as Trump’s, is also negative.
Vox’s Matt Yglesias, explaining why he finds Cruz even less electable than Trump, argues that Trump’s “actual policy positions are generally more moderate than Cruz’s, and his support within the GOP primary electorate does not look particularly ideological.” Though “Trump as nominee would certainly be a risky (and probably disastrous) leap into the unknown,” Yglesias writes, Cruz “as nominee would be a leap into something we’ve actually seen quite clearly before in 1964 and 1972—a factional candidacy by a senator from the fringe of his own party caucus who gets drubbed on Election Day.”
It’s a reasonable counterintuitive argument that Trump is not the worst imaginable horse for the Republican Party establishment to ride into the general election. But I’m still not sure the party would, or should, buy it.
The major point here, as Yglesias concedes, is that Trump’s performance as nominee would be “probably disastrous.” I’d say “certainly disastrous.” He is the most well-known figure in the Republican field, who has earned plenty of exposure over not just the past six months but over the past 40 years. And he is despised by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. His campaign has brought an ironic twist to the pursuit of the white working class, the demographic that, for many cycles now, has been the subject of much high-stakes tussling between the parties. Trump has laid out a path not just for taking this demographic, but making many of them love you to the point where they get upset if you offer any critique of him. But in winning the white working class, Trump has abandoned just about everyone else.
What’s also appealing to the establishment about Cruz over Trump is that Cruz can at least be controlled somewhat, whereas Trump cannot be controlled whatsoever. Cruz in a general election would understand his responsibility to the Republican Party—to not go out of his way to humiliate it by speaking off the cuff, thus endangering down-ballot candidates. Trump does not care, in any way, about the Republican Party or the Senate or conservatism or any person or thing other than himself, and the maintenance of his outrageous brand. There’s no indication that he ever would or could control himself when he’s representing an organization larger than himself. He is egomaniacal and cares about no party’s fortune beyond his own. Each morning would be the dawn of a new, paranoid terror for party officials, just thinking about Trump on the loose as its party standard-bearer.
A majority of American voters also aren’t going to listen to Trump’s slightly more moderate policy positions over Cruz’s if the idea of a personality like Trump as head of state scares them into shock. One simple mental exercise when considering electability is: Would you feel at least barely safe with this person running the affairs of state for even a day? A week? Though a couple of Cruz’s legislative policy proposals are far to the right of Trump’s, you could at least see Cruz sitting in the Oval Office for 24 hours without destroying the world. You can’t be as sure with someone as spontaneous as Trump.
This is the attack that Cruz, who has a sharp political mind, seems most prepared to level against Trump. The New York Times reported Thursday on comments Cruz made at a private New York City fundraiser. Though Cruz is denying he was criticizing Trump, that doesn’t make any sense, since he was explicitly speaking about why he’s a stronger candidate than Trump (and Ben Carson, who’s fallen out of the picture): “Who am I comfortable having their finger on the button?” Cruz said. “Now that’s a question of strength, but it’s also a question of judgment. And I think that is a question that is a challenging question for both of them.”
Debating whether Trump or Cruz is more electable in the general election is like debating whether Trump or Cruz is more likely to be the MVP in the next Super Bowl. Each is a very poor prospect for separate reasons: One has extremely conservative politics, while the other is a visibly insane person. This is why party leaders are still desperately hoping that Christie, Rubio, Bush, or Kasich can make something happen.*
If neither Trump nor Cruz has much chance to win though, then the question becomes: Is there anything useful the party could get out of either of these two?
Not with Trump! The only information the party would gather after riding Trump to its third consecutive Electoral College defeat is the simple acknowledgement that it had just wasted a presidential election on Donald Trump. Trump stands for nothing, other than an electoral waste of time.
Cruz, though, would be an interesting experiment and offer another useful upside. He would give the conservative movement what they’ve been craving: an ideological representative of their own atop the ticket, instead of a mushy-middle “moderate” like Bob Dole, Sen. John McCain, or Mitt Romney. Cruz’s campaign is predicated on the idea that, in such a polarized environment, what matters most is turning out one’s own side, and the best way to do that would be to nominate a movement conservative such as himself. I tend to think this is a fiction conservatives tell themselves, errantly conflating their policy preferences with their political punditry. If Cruz is nominated, though, it would put that theory to the test. Is the conservative movement right about this, or not? We’d find out, and then the country can move on.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.
Correction, Dec. 11, 2015: This article misstated that GOP party leaders are hoping that Cruz can “make something happen” in the primary. They’re hoping for Christie, not Cruz. (Return.)