Democrats want Ted Cruz to be the GOP’s nominee. They should be careful what they wish for.

Andrew Romano
·West Coast Correspondent
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Sen. Ted Cruz at a campaign rally in Bloomingdale, Ga. (Photo: Nicholas Pilch/Getty Images)

As Texas Sen. Ted Cruz continues to rise in the 2016 Republican primary polls — he now leads longtime frontrunner Donald Trump by as many as 10 percentage points in Iowa and has climbed to second place nationally — Democrats have been struggling to contain their excitement.

After all, this Cruz character is so “out there” — or so they’ve been telling themselves — that he once likened his fellow Republicans to Nazi appeaser Neville Chamberlain. He has questioned whether former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, also a Republican, ever “received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups.” At one point he even terrified a 3-year-old girl by informing her that, thanks to President Obama, “your world is on fire.”

Earlier this month at an event in Cleveland, David Brock, a key Hillary Clinton fundraiser and ally, neatly summed up the conventional wisdom among Democrats.

“[Cruz is] where the id of the conservative base is,” Brock said, explaining why he believes — and, seemingly, hopes — that “Cruz will end up as the nominee.”

Brock went on to describe Cruz as a “hyperpartisan who has aligned himself with the most extreme elements of the Republican Party” and is “wildly out of touch with American voters.” His conclusion? “There’s an awful lot to talk about with Ted Cruz.”

You could practically see Brock salivating at the prospect of a Clinton-Cruz faceoff.

The assumption, of course, is that Cruz is too “extreme” to win the general election next November, and that by nominating the junior senator from Texas, the GOP would effectively ensure Clinton’s victory. Democrats are already comparing Cruz to Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who lost to Lyndon B. Johnson by 434 electoral votes in the 1964 presidential election.

But Brock & Co. should be careful what they wish for.

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To be sure, Cruz is still a long way from winning the Republican nomination. He’s never run a competitive general-election race. (A single statewide contest in deep-red Texas against a sacrificial lamb of a Democrat doesn’t count.) And he’s been losing to Clinton in pretty much every head-to-head poll released since the summer of 2014.

Yet to assume that Cruz has already boxed himself in — that he is not cunning enough to pivot to general-election mode — is to ignore his entire history as a debater, lawyer, and senator and to gravely underestimate a strategic thinker who, as I demonstrated in a recent profile, is easily the most calculating figure in contemporary American politics.

The truth is, Ted Cruz not only has a plan for transforming himself into a credible general-election candidate. He is already putting his plan into action — as his recent twists and turns over immigration demonstrate.

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The first thing to note about Cruz is that there is a reason why he was once the top-ranked collegiate debater in the nation, and why he went on to become the best appellate litigator in Texas. He is exceedingly rational. He is always aware of his audience, his objectives and whatever counterarguments his opponents might make, and he always shapes his strategy accordingly.

“Because parliamentary debate was extemporaneous, you had to move on a dime and defend positions you didn’t necessarily agree with,” says Sacha Zimmerman, a Columbia debater who knew Cruz from the circuit. “He was just as good at defending liberal positions as conservative ones.”

Since arriving in Washington, D.C., in 2013, Cruz has played the part of bomb-throwing zealot, whether in his faux filibuster of Obamacare or, more recently, his eager embrace of Kim Davis’ crusade against gay marriage. The decision was clearly strategic — a performance, of sorts. (Incidentally, the teenage Ted considered moving to Hollywood to pursue acting before his parents convinced him to go to Princeton instead.) From the start, Sen. Cruz’s goal was to establish his personal brand as the most “consistent conservative” on Capitol Hill, decorum be damned — then to use that brand to run for president. And that’s exactly what he has done.

None of which is to say that Cruz isn’t principled. He has been studying the Constitution since childhood; he read Frederich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises as an adolescent. He has always been a true believer in free-market economics and small-government conservatism.

Yet like any effective lawyer or politician, Cruz has no problem shifting his emphasis when necessary. Today, he seems to place more emphasis on polarizing cultural issues such as guns and gay marriage than he did earlier in life. The New York Times recently reported, for example, that when Cruz worked on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, he penned a memo that encouraged his boss to “consider all options when trying to resolve our immigration problem and what to do with the millions of illegal immigrants already living here.”

“We need to remember,” Cruz continued, “that many of those coming here are coming to feed their families, to have a chance at a better life.”

Unsurprisingly, the Bush memo is now causing Cruz some trouble on the campaign trail, and his aides are refusing to say whether it reflected his own thinking on immigration at the time. But in an interview with a Princeton alumni magazine later that same year, Cruz himself seemed to suggest that he and Bush saw eye to eye.

“One of the reasons I was so eager to help Bush is the way he has described himself, as a compassionate conservative,” Cruz said. “That’s how I have always conceived of my own political views.”

I’ve spoken to several of Cruz’s Harvard Law School classmates, and this is the Cruz they remember: more of a realpolitik intellectual than a fire-and-brimstone fanatic. They’re also convinced that the old Cruz will resurface if he wins the Republican nomination.

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“I think people are completely wrong when they say that Ted is unelectable because he’s too extreme,” says a fellow Harvard Law alum who requested anonymity for fear of retribution if Cruz were to become president. “Not for a second will he stay an extremist in the general election, because he wouldn’t win. He will move wherever he needs to go. In fact, I bet he’s already planned out where he’s going to be on issues as a general-election candidate. And it’s not the same place as now.”

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Last week, Mike Allen of Politico reported that several of Cruz’s private fundraising events have been covertly recorded and that “when addressing Manhattan donors, Cruz strikes a more moderate and inclusive tone on social issues than he does when speaking to Iowa audiences,” according to the tapes.

“Some donors say that New York Cruz sounds different than Iowa Cruz,” Allen continued.

The simultaneous existence of a “New York Cruz” and an “Iowa Cruz” should not surprise anyone who’s been paying close attention to his political career, nor should anyone be shocked if Iowa Cruz starts to sound a lot more like New York Cruz after winning the Republican nomination.

On several key issues, Cruz has taken pains to preserve as much wiggle room as possible, suggesting that he is already strategizing about next November’s general election.

Most striking is immigration.

For years, Cruz repeated the same talking points: Before we do anything else, we must secure the border with Mexico and update our legal immigration system. He has also consistently ruled out a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants who currently live in the United States.

But what was revealing about Cruz’s approach to this subject is that no matter how many times reporters asked him to spell out what he would do with those 11 million immigrants — as opposed to what he wouldn’t do — he simply refused to answer.

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Here’s Cruz in Harlan, Iowa, shortly before Thanksgiving: “We can have that conversation with the American people once we’ve secured the border.”

Here’s what Cruz said to Megyn Kelly, of Fox News, when she tried her luck in August: “Megyn, I get that that’s the question you want to ask. That’s also the question every mainstream media liberal journalist wants to ask.”

And here’s an exchange with Chuck Todd (condensed for our purposes) in which Cruz is so desperate to dodge the question that it’s almost painful.

TODD: “What do you do with the 11 million?”

CRUZ: “You know, it’s an interesting thing in Washington …”

TODD: “What do you do with the 11 million people, though? …”

CRUZ: “Chuck, I don’t accept the premise that you have to solve every aspect of this problem all at once …”

TODD: “You still didn’t say what you’d do with the 11 million …”

CRUZ: “I don’t think the American people will accept any solution until we demonstrate … we can secure the border.”

And so on.

There is a reason why Cruz spent so much time and energy evading questions like Todd’s: He was trying not to box himself in. Cruz’s strategy seems to have been to allow himself enough space to emphasize border security during the primary before softening his rhetoric in the general, perhaps by highlighting an amendment he introduced during the heated 2013 debates over the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive reform bill that ruled out citizenship but preserved a pathway to legal status — an approach he described at the time as the “middle ground.”

“I don’t want immigration reform to fail. I want immigration reform to pass,” Cruz said in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 21, 2013, adding that he “would urge people of good faith on both sides of the aisle” to support his amendment if their intent was to “pass common sense immigration reform that secures the borders, that improves legal immigration, and that allows those who are here illegally to come in out of the shadows.”

In recent weeks, Cruz has attempted to out-conservative his main rival for the nomination, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, by suggesting that this pro-legalization amendment wasn’t, in fact, a sincere expression of his views but rather a mind-bending thought experiment designed to expose the Gang of Eight’s hypocrisy on immigration reform.

As my colleague Jon Ward has noted, this whiplash-inducing 180 has now opened Cruz up to the same charge of hypocrisy, and Cruz has been doubling down on his hard-line objections to “amnesty” in response. But even when Rubio pressed Cruz to finally, flatly state whether he would “rule out ever legalizing people who are in this country illegally” at the GOP’s most recent debate in Las Vegas, the Texan made sure to carve out one last square inch of lawyerly wiggle room.

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Cruz at the CNN presidential debate in Las Vegas on Dec. 15. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“I have never supported legalization,” Cruz said, “and I do not intend to support it” — “intend” being the operative word here.

Cruz’s newfound “clarity” on the question of legalization is clearly a shift in strategy; because of Donald Trump, the Republican primary contest has veered much further to the right on immigration than anyone (Cruz included) could have anticipated, and the senator is simply maneuvering for maximum political advantage.

But that’s the point. Cruz is a master of quietly, cleverly keeping his options open until it makes sense to break one way or the other. In this case, he had to break to the right in the primary by casting his amendment as a brilliant ruse designed to undermine the very thing he claimed to be promoting at the time: comprehensive immigration reform. But there’s no reason to think that if the dynamics of the race had been different, he wouldn’t have broken left in the general election and touted the same legislation as proof of his “middle ground” beliefs on the issue. Otherwise he wouldn’t have spent the last two years ducking questions like Kelly’s and Todd’s.

Cruz has tried to lay the groundwork for a general-election campaign on other fronts as well. As Texas Monthly’s Eric Greider has pointed out, Cruz has “never fully committed himself to the Tea Party’s more controversial causes,” despite his reputation as a purist. For example: Cruz doesn’t baldly deny the concept of climate change; instead, he tends to voice epistemological concerns with the data, which, as he put it in a 2014 interview with CNN, “are not supporting what the advocates are arguing.” This kind of critique is ambiguous enough that Cruz could later claim that he never meant the planet wasn’t warming up — just that the numbers were off, or that climate-change advocates were misrepresenting them.

The same goes for gay marriage. In October 2014, after the Supreme Court rejected the appeals requests of five states seeking to outlaw the practice, Cruz (predictably) slammed the court for abdicating its responsibility on the legal question. He went on to introduce a constitutional amendment in the Senate. Republicans have floated similar proposals before, notably the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2006 and 2013. But Cruz’s amendment was different. Instead of outright banning same-sex marriage, like the FMA, it would have “prevent[ed] the federal government or the courts from attacking or striking down [existing] state marriage laws.” His official objection was constitutional, not cultural. If Clinton ever attacks Cruz on the issue, it isn’t hard to imagine him claiming that he’s OK with same-sex marriage being legal as long it’s an individual state (and not the federal government) that has decided to legalize it.

Cruz’s maneuvering isn’t always so subtle. In April, for example, the Texan co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed saying that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Obama’s sweeping free-trade compact, would be a “fair deal” for the American worker. But in June he reversed course, much like Hillary Clinton, who flip-flopped on the TPP a few months later. Clinton and Cruz even voiced similar populist objections to the deal, claiming that it would, as the National Review put it, “take jobs away from working-class Americans.”

Finally, on issues of national security, Cruz has never been shy about staking out what are likely to be more palatable general-election positions than many of his Republican rivals. Look no further than the Las Vegas debate for evidence. While Rubio articulated the case for hawkish, George W. Bush-style neoconservatism — toppling “brutal” Arab dictators, promoting democracy in the Middle East — Cruz argued for a less interventionist approach, defending his vote to curtail the NSA’s ability to collect metadata on U.S. citizens and calling for America to limit its engagement abroad.

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“One of the problems with Marco’s foreign policy is he has far too often supported Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama undermining governments in the Middle East, [which has] helped radical Islamic terrorists,” Cruz said. “We need to focus on killing the bad guys, not getting stuck in Middle Eastern civil wars that don’t keep America safe.”

The fact that Cruz tends to surround such remarks with bellicose, base-pleasing rhetoric about “carpet-bombing” ISIS until the sands of Syria and Iraq “glow in the dark” shouldn’t distract from his real message, which is intended to appeal — eventually — to the many general-election voters who fear another Iraq War and remain wary of American overreach, especially in the Middle East. It’s no mistake that Cruz often “read[s] from the same foreign-policy script” as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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As I wrote last month, it remains to be seen whether the divisive Cruz, who has never even attempted to appeal to moderate voters, has the agility to pivot from a narrowly focused primary contest to a nationwide general election. Many observers doubt it. But they shouldn’t doubt that Cruz has a plan.

In interviews, Cruz likes to quote the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu: “Every battle is won before it is fought. It is won by choosing the terrain on which the battle is fought.” So if Cruz captures the GOP nomination, merely shifting his policy emphasis won’t be enough. Instead, he will need a whole new narrative to reframe the contest with Clinton.

He has already spelled it out. Cruz calls his general-election strategy “opportunity conservatism”: a carefully calibrated message designed to counter the impression that “the GOP is the party of ‘the rich’ and that Democrats are the party of everybody else” by “conceptualiz[ing] and articulat[ing] every domestic policy with a single-minded focus on easing the ascent up the economic ladder.”

“Don’t just say no to new taxes,” Cruz advised his fellow Republicans in 2013. “Fundamentally reform the tax code so that every American can file his taxes on a postcard. Eliminate the corporate welfare and complexity that enrich only accountants and lawyers.”

“Don’t just criticize union bosses,” he continued. “Explain how closed shops confiscate wages and make it harder for low-skilled workers to get jobs. Don’t talk generically about education; advocate school choice to empower parents and expand opportunity for children struggling to get ahead. Don’t just dwell on the long-term solvency of Social Security; promote personal accounts to allow low-income Americans to accumulate wealth and pass it on to future generations.”

Cruz believes that if he repackages the Republican agenda in populist (as opposed to plutocratic) terms, the white working-class voters who have soured on Obama’s increasingly diverse, increasingly cosmopolitan Democratic Party — Cruz calls them “Reagan Democrats” — will flock to him instead.

“They are the blue collar Catholics across the Midwest and up in New England,” Cruz said earlier this month on MSNBC. “They are union members, gun owners, pro-life, strong national defense. They are truck drivers and mechanics and electricians and plumbers and schoolteachers and nurses and waiters and waitresses. They’re working men and women who are getting hammered by the Obama economy. And they’re tired of the Washington elites who are not fighting for the working men and women in this country. That’s how we win in November of 2016.”

In this universe, Cruz’s polarizing behavior isn’t a minus — it’s a plus (at least according to Cruz). Sure, the strident, quixotic battles that Cruz has been fighting ever since he first set foot on Capitol Hill may have looked like self-promotional purity tests designed to reinforce his conservative credentials and further his own presidential ambitions. But really, he’s been waging war on behalf of the little guy all along — unlike the rest of the “Washington cartel,” Republicans included, which “listens to one and only one voice”: the voice “of the lobbyists on K Street, of the big money and big corporations.”

Cruz’s critics could still be vindicated. As clever as the Texan is, he may not be clever enough to convince voters that his reputation as a far-right ideologue is wrong and that he’s actually a pragmatic working-class hero instead. The more he moderates his rhetoric, the more he risks undermining his “consistent conservative” brand and reinforcing the suspicion that he’s a Machiavellian schemer. He may not even win the Republican primary.

That said, Team Clinton would be wise to take a closer look at the data before concluding that Cruz couldn’t possibly remake himself before next November. Right now, 42.6 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Clinton, on average; more than 50 percent view the former secretary of state unfavorably. Only 4.8 percent are undecided.

Like Clinton, Cruz is also underwater, with a favorable rating of 32 percent and an unfavorable rating of 39 percent. But Cruz is a much less familiar figure than Clinton, meaning that a lot of people still don’t know what they think of him — a whopping 29.4 percent, in fact.

So it is actually Cruz, not Clinton, who has the better chance of changing voters’ minds in 2016. And he is already plotting about how he will do it.

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Cruz looks over a handgun handed to him by a supporter during an Iowa campaign event. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)