By Julian Zelizer
Editor’s note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
(CNN) — The greatest political sleight of hand in the 2016 campaign has been Sen. Ted Cruz’s remaking himself into the reasonable, establishment candidate in the GOP race.
The strategy seems to be working. Now that Marco Rubio is out of the race and John Kasich struggles to win any state other than Ohio, where he is the governor, a number of prominent officials are turning to the Texas senator.
Former Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who has decried what Donald Trump would do to the legacy of his party, campaigned for Cruz in Utah and said that he will vote for him. Jeb Bush, the scion of the so-called establishment, formally announced that he was endorsing Cruz.
The campaign within the GOP to stop Trump now seems to be placing much of its firepower behind a politician who has been at the far end of the political spectrum and who has practiced an aggressive, smashmouth style of politics that has sometimes made Trump look tame.
Champion of tea party conservatism
The senator from Texas has never strayed from the right-wing of the GOP. If Republicans like Mitt Romney are looking for a candidate who can have broad appeal in the general election, Cruz is not that person. Throughout his relatively short congressional career, he has done more than almost any other politician to champion the ideas of tea party conservatism.
Cruz has taken a staunch stand against gay rights, emerging as one of the loudest opponents to the drive for same-sex marriage. He called a Supreme Court ruling that was sympathetic to same-sex marriage, “tragic and indefensible.” He has also opposed the passage of non-discrimination protection for LGBT Americans.
Turning to immigration, Cruz has called for an amendment that would deny citizenship to the children of persons who were in the U.S. illegally. Cruz, who also wants to build a wall, has called for tripling the number of Border Patrol agents and vastly increasing the number of aircraft they have available, and greatly expanding the fencing separating the countries.
He would not admit most refugees who are trying to enter from Syria, though he has indicated he would be more lenient if they were Christian. “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror,” he said in November 2015.
Cruz has been at the forefront of the fight to repeal Obamacare and to kill funding for Planned Parenthood. He is one of the Republicans who does not believe in scientific evidence about climate change. “They’re cooking the books,” the senator said in reference to government research on the subject.
A month before he was sworn into office, according to Jeffrey Toobin, he urged his colleagues to stand firm against a U.N. treaty supporting the rights of the disabled. On foreign policy, Cruz has repeatedly called for carpet-bombing ISIS, an idea most experts agree would be ineffective and dangerous, likely building support for the organization as a result of the civilians who would be killed.
Besides his policy positions, Cruz has also been connected to fringe elements of the conservative world. In Virginia, he picked state Senator Richard Black to co-chair his campaign. Black has called for banning abortion in all cases, outlawing the morning-after-pill, and said that marital rape should not be a crime. He received the endorsement of Mike Bickle, the founder of the International House of Prayer who claimed that homosexuality “opens the door to the demonic realm.” He was endorsed by and helped raise money for the Gun Owners of America, a radical gun rights organization that thinks the NRA is too moderate.
Among his foreign policy advisers, for instance, are individuals who are known for their fiery anti-Islamic statements and support of “birtherism.” Former Ronald Reagan official Frank Gaffney, for instance, has voiced extreme statements about the dangers of Muslims. Indeed, Trump cited data that came from his think tank when calling for a moratorium on Muslims.
Gaffney, one of the early supporters of birther arguments, penned an op-ed in The Washington Times in 2009 in which he stated: “Applying the standard of identity politics and pandering to a special interest that earned Mr. Clinton” the distinction of being called “America’s First Black President,” Obama “would have to be considered America’s first Muslim president.” The Southern Poverty Law Center called Gaffney “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes.”.
Specialist in political obstruction
And when it comes to radical political obstructionism, nobody has done it better than Senator Cruz. Earlier this year The Washington Post gave him the title of “Obstructor in Chief.” He has been one of the champions of congressional practices that bring Washington to a halt. He has steadfastly refused to enter into any kind of agreement with the administration, lobbying members of the House as well as the Senate, and he has employed practices like the filibuster to new levels.
In 2013, after his 21-hour filibuster, he was the driving force behind allowing the government to shut down over spending disputes. Not a surprise from a politician who has called for the abolition of the IRS as well as of the departments of Education, Energy, and HUD. In contrast to Trump, he has called for privatizing Social Security for younger workers.
When it comes time to raise the debt level, he is one of the Republicans willing to send the nation into default to prove a political point. During the confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense in 2013, he engaged in guilt-by-association McCarthyite tactics by suggesting that the senator was too close to Iran and North Korea, a charge that even made some fellow Republicans shake their heads. These were the kinds of actions that led South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham to joke, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”
If Donald Trump is a blend of George Wallace and P.T. Barnum put together, Senator Cruz is much closer to Barry Goldwater in 1964, though without the interest in legislating. The only thing that has allowed him to position himself as a safer choice for the party has been Donald Trump’s success.
The Republicans who are willing to throw their support behind the senator as they take principled stands against Trump reveal clearly how far the party has moved to the right in recent years and just how desperate some have become to keep the reality TV star off the ticket.