Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, but even the most ardent of Trump’s supporters will probably agree he is unlikely to win the general election. Given the calculus, it is worth looking past this presidential race and assessing which Republicans have positioned themselves best to pick up the pieces.
While U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the establishment favorite, Sen. Ted Cruz should not be underestimated. His campaign is built to last for more than one presidential cycle. And while both Ryan and Cruz call Ronald Reagan their hero, it is Cruz who has been following Reagan’s campaign blueprint.
Like Reagan, Cruz has positioned himself as the only serious candidate campaigning on conservative principles. As if reading from transcripts of Reagan’s speeches, he lauds the virtues of limited government, states’ rights, Christian faith and economic liberty. The benefit of this message, for both Cruz and Reagan, is that it can be appealing in a variety of economic, social, and foreign-policy contexts. Thus, despite failing to get their party’s nomination the first (or the second) time, both candidates remained well positioned to run again. It took Reagan 16 years and two lost nominations before his message resonated with enough voters. At 45, Cruz can wait even longer.
Cruz has telegraphed his long-term vision in interviews and campaign speeches. According to him, every time Republicans run a moderate candidate, they lose the general election to a Democrat. As he told The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin, in a somewhat selective account of U.S. campaign history, nominating someone other than a true conservative has not worked.
Look at George H.W. Bush, Cruz said. First, he "ran as a strong conservative, ran to continue the third term of Ronald Reagan, continue the Ronald Reagan revolution" and won. Then, "he raised taxes and in '92 ran as an establishment moderate" and lost. Similarly, Cruz continued, establishment moderates Bob Dole and Mitt Romney lost, while true conservatives George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan won.
While is not an establishment moderate, he is also far from a true conservative. If Trump loses in the 2016 general election, it will add another data-point in support of Cruz’s theory.
For Reagan, the journey to the nomination began in 1964. In his campaign speeches for Barry Goldwater, Reagan harshly criticized key progressive policies such as the New Deal and the Great Society. He also lamented rising deficits and crime and declining military prowess. In 1966, in large part due to the prominence brought to him by campaign speeches that lauded conservative principles, Reagan was elected as California’s governor.
Then, in 1968, he challenged Richard Nixon in the primaries (without formally announcing his candidacy until the first day of the convention) by positioning himself to Nixon’s right and hoping to chip away at the former vice president’s southern support. While the fight went all the way to the convention floor, Nixon won on the first ballot. Reagan came in third.
Reagan ran again in 1976. This time, he challenged a sitting president — Gerald Ford — to a primary race. True to form, Reagan campaigned to Ford’s right. He forced a brokered convention largely due to the support of his candidacy in Texas and other states in the South. At the convention, Reagan lost narrowly on the first ballot, but he gave a memorable impromptu speech that helped to catapult him to the 1980 nomination. In the speech, he urged the nation to answer “a call to arms” based on a party platform that raised “a banner of bold colors, not pale pastels." Reagan also harshly criticized what he claimed to be the erosion of freedom in America, including the invasion of private rights and the decline of economic liberty.
By framing his speech around answering “a call to arms,” Reagan implicitly drew a contrast between himself and the nominee, who was not willing to go as far. The speech reinforced Reagan’s reputation as a conservative Republican with a bold vision, and many left the convention wondering whether they picked the right candidate.
The loss at the convention and the contrast Reagan drew between himself and moderate Republicans served him well when the right moment finally came four years later. After Ford lost the general election to Jimmy Carter and after Carter had the misfortune of presiding over declining oil prices, stagflation, overactive Soviets in Afghanistan, and a regime change in Iran, Reagan ended up in a perfect spot, offering the remorseful party an opportunity for a do-over.
Like Reagan, Cruz has been carefully and deliberately building a record that suggests an uncompromising dedication to conservative principles. As a state Solicitor General, he defended Texas’s decision to place a Ten Commandments monument on the State Capitol grounds. He also defended the death penalty for child rapists and a state’s ability to execute a foreign national despite an international treaty prohibiting it. As a Senator, Cruz contributed to a government shutdown by filibustering a budget deal because of a funding provision for the Affordable Care Act — a key progressive achievement of the Obama Administration.
He also has become an intellectual leader of the House’s Tea Party caucus (known as the Freedom Caucus). On the campaign trail, Cruz emphasized his support for individual freedoms, especially freedom of religion and economic liberty. Cruz built this record at the expense of forming enduring relationships with Republicans in Washington D.C. and Texas. But that’s almost the point. According to Cruz, he is willing to sacrifice anything, including his reputation, to stand up to what he calls true American values and the Constitution.
After he suspended his campaign, Cruz showed no signs of softening his positions. During his first week back in Washington, he declared: “I’m going to continue fighting for the American people, and if fighting for the American people makes you an outsider in the Senate, then I will happily remain an outsider.” Cruz seems to view his loss in the Republican primary as just another building block in his conservative movement, which, according to him, “doesn’t go away with one election result.”