Most Republican candidates for the US presidency this election cycle are rushing to position themselves as the anti-Donald Trump, especially after his recently proposed plan to temporarily block all Muslims from entering the United States.
“You know how you can ‘Make America Great Again’?” asked South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham, citing Trump’s infamous campaign slogan. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”
“Donald Trump is unhinged,” tweeted Florida governor Jeb Bush. “His ‘policy’ proposals are not serious.”
Texas senator Ted Cruz is opting for an alternative route.
Rather than repudiate his rival, Cruz is instead aiming to be seen as a “toned-down Trump,” according to Bloomberg Politics’ Kevin Cirilli, who spoke with a number of the conservative’s fans in Iowa on Dec. 9. So far it seems to be working. Trump’s recent comments make “Senator Cruz seem much more sane,” said one Iowa voter; “Cruz is like Trump, but at a toned-down level,” said another.
It’s clear Cruz’s camp is walking a fine line. Trump’s supporters have so far identified with a man both volatile and unpredictable, so straight-edge and solemn is unlikely to siphon off much of his base. Cruz must therefore present himself as a candidate who is sensible, but not too sensible.
The thing is, Cruz isn’t merely a toned-down version of Trump. He’s just as conservative, just as volatile, though probably a little less erratic. And this makes him all the more dangerous, from a progressive point of view.
Recently surfaced raw footage taped by Cruz’s team for use in super PAC campaign ads shows a man posing for the cameras, contriving moments of wholesome family-togetherness for his “traditional-values” bloc of potential voters. Whereas Trump bubbles and explodes with off-the-cuff bloviations, charming supporters with outrageous moments of “did-he-actually-say-that!?” Cruz is purposeful and patient. He’s a calculator and a manipulator, and though he’s not a particularly gifted actor, he knows how to play the political role he’s picked out for himself—with aplomb.
More than fulfill any idealogical goal, Trump’s demagoguery suggests a man who wants to make it to the White House, whatever the costs. If it were easier to do so as a Democrat, he might well be running as a Democrat. (Not going to happen in 2016, of course—Trump knows he can’t compete with Hillary Clinton, or even Bernie Sanders, with left-leaning voters.)
Cruz, on the other hand, wants to be an ultra-conservative president, the ultra-conservative president: a classist president, an anti-choice president, a pro-gun president, a pro-war president, a racist president, a homophobic president, a theocratic president, a xenophobic president. This is a politician who thinks free condoms at universities constitute sufficient women’s health care. He wants to build Trump’s proposed wall, and then some. He believes the Bible always wins when it comes down to a choice between it and the Constitution.
Essentially, he matches Trump tit-for-tat on most every conservative idealogical marker. But unlike Trump, Cruz is utterly and completely devoted to a purist, conservative cause. And his ability to mask zealotry with political rhetoric renders him an exponentially more potent candidate. While Trump likes to flirt with populism (a bit disingenuously—he gradated from Wharton after all), Cruz is proud of his Princeton-Harvard Law pedigree. Say what you will about his political positions, but he’s smart. “Like a genetically manipulated shark,” as Tracy Jordan would say.
Trump, the opportunist, hopes to barge his way into the White House. Ted Cruz, the lifelong political operator, has realized that the smarter play may be to wait for Trump to break down the fence, then simply step over the Donald’s exhausted form on the way to the front door.