Last fall, Rep. Paul Ryan brought peace to the House of Representatives when he agreed to replace John Boehner as speaker and leader of the House Republican caucus. Now, GOP elites want him to perform the same feat for the presidential race. If Donald Trump falls short of the delegates he needs to win the nomination outright, then some Republicans hope Ryan can step to the stage and unite a divided party. “He’s the most conservative, least establishment member of the establishment,” said an unnamed Republican source to Politico. “That’s what you need to be.”
This makes a certain amount of sense. With strong stature among Republicans of all stripes, Ryan could plausibly unite the establishment with its Trumpist discontents. At the same time, he’s not the only person in the Republican Party with the status and credentials to accomplish this task. There is another, an actual presidential candidate with real support from Republican voters and a patina of credibility: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, statewide winner of Tuesday night’s Wisconsin primary.
Barring a major shift in the race, Cruz will finish the Republican primary with the second-most delegates and the second-most votes. He is the only candidate with a proven ability to rally GOP voters against Donald Trump, and while he’s antagonized elite Republicans through legislative stunts and constant attacks, he also has an almost-typical resume, having done stints on the 2000 George W. Bush campaign and in the Bush White House, and having worked in the highest levels of Texas government. He holds elite degrees, is fluent in conservative rhetoric, backs the Republican Party’s policy agenda, and is comfortable with its donors and wealthy benefactors. And the fact that he holds some democratic legitimacy—as an actual presidential candidate with a viable and well-organized campaign—makes him the obvious choice for any effort to take the nomination from Trump.
But for as much as Cruz makes sense, there’s a reason Republican elites have kept him at arm’s length, and it’s not his vocal and alienating disdain for much of the party establishment. Ted Cruz represents more than his own vaulting ambition; he is an avatar for a conservative faction of the Republican Party that wants to ascend to prominence. Attached to the Tea Party, rooted in institutions like the Heritage Foundation, and based in the deep-red South and the most conservative parts of the Midwest, this counterestablishment seeks to supplant the traditional power brokers of the Republican Party. And in Cruz, it has a candidate with the strategic mind and organizational prowess to make it happen.
We see this in the delegate shenanigans of the past week. In Arizona, Cruz is recruiting candidates—loyalists—to serve as delegates to the national convention in Cleveland. Should they win their delegate elections, they will stand as Cruz allies this summer. Likewise in North Dakota, Cruz won the delegate selection process outright. “North Dakota Republicans selected 25 national delegates and, of those, 18 were on a list of preferred delegates that Cruz circulated,” notes CNN.
Ted Cruz will do anything it takes to win, and once he holds victory, he’ll use his influence to reshape the Republican establishment in the image of its hard-right rivals. For as much as the GOP’s traditional elites are afraid of Donald Trump and what he could do to the party’s prospects, they are terrified of Cruz, who wants to shunt them to the ash-heap of history. It’s this (along with pure personal dislike) that has pushed these elites to look for a savior from both men.
As for Democrats? They’re eager to run against Donald Trump. He’s one of the most unpopular people in America, not just disliked, but loathed. With Trump at the top of the Republican ticket, Democrats aren’t just favored to win the White House and the Senate; they have a shot at the House of Representatives.
But if the long-term problem of American politics is a dysfunctional Republican Party that’s averse to compromise and the basic give-and-take of governance, then Trump is a less-than-ideal opponent. To the most conservative Republicans—the counterestablishment that claims Cruz as its champion—the real estate mogul is a black swan. If he loses, he loses, and they can get back to the business of claiming the party for themselves. And Cruz, if he runs again, will stick to his core message: that the Republican Party can win again if it nominates a “true conservative.”
The GOP establishment is right to fear and dislike Cruz, but, ironically, its best option for retaining influence is to choose him for its nominee. That would clip Cruz’s wings, and in the process marginalize a faction that has steered the GOP to an almost untenable position. We have reached a through-the-looking-glass phase of the election in which the smartest play is for Republicans to be good Leninists and heighten the contradictions within their own party. GOP elites hate Cruz, but in a perverse way, he’s the man that they—and the Democratic Party—need right now.