Donald Trump -- a gift that keeps giving
"Who is the political strategist for Trump?" a friend asked me, actually in frustration. To her, Trump seems to demonstrate pro-American strength, in contrast to leftist Barack Obama, apologist for America. She also is drawn to Trump's admirable rebellion against political correctness. She likes Trump; yet, or maybe because: she laments Trump's self-destructive path. His obsession with Megyn Kelly indicates he is weak, not strong, and that he holds a grudge.
Further, Trump's tweeted insults seem impulsive and even absurd, and they are taking their toll, even on her, a Trump fan, a bellwether, so the cumulative effect of his stupid tantrums could reach a breaking point, as yet unknown. He seems determined to drive up his negatives and, if he is the party nominee, needlessly insure a Hillary victory, and even some diehard Trump voters now are having second thoughts.
"Trump's ego prevents collaborative strategy," I answered my friend. I wanted to say, the enemy is ISIS, not Heidi Cruz. As he has done in the past, Trump has taken what should have been a bad week for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and deflected their shortcomings, arguably criminal incompetence, in favor of his juvenile tweets. Will his conduct be the story in a general election, or can we put Hillary on defense?
"He's using the shock/crisis strategy," my friend observed about Trump. On reflection, I will tell her that shock and awe may have worked in the first Persian Gulf War. Among the electorate, it raises questions about temperament.
Yet, what Trump is doing: he may be the best thing that ever happened to Ted Cruz. He is, for Cruz, the gift that keeps giving. Cruz needs to accept the gift. But, rather than seize the moment, Cruz is stuck in his own world, surrounded by groupies who think this electorate resembles Reagan/circa 1980.
Last week Trump, in a rare display of both civility and preparation, delivered a major policy address at AIPAC. As Charles Krauthammer since explained, he and other supporters of Israel did not feel that Trump's prior "neutrality" was anti-Israel. Trump was, Krauthammer explained, simply ignorant that "neutral" was a code word for the Barack Obama anti-Israel policy; further, Trump last year did not know the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah; finally, Krauthammer said the most serious deficiency of Trump is not his ignorance of fundamentals, or whether he is sufficiently conservative, but simply his temperament.
Yet Trump scored at AIPAC, and his sound bites and applause covered up his disjointed interview (for which his staff obviously did not prepare him) earlier that day with the editorial board of the Washington Post.
Cruz has more knowledge and depth on the Mideast (and most everything else) than Trump and an unequivocal record seeing Israel as an ally, not an albatross. At the beginning of his AIPAC speech, Cruz connected on a personal and heartfelt level. But then he lapsed into CPW -- Cruz Policy Wonk. It was as if Cruz were speaking to a Jewish chapter of the Federalist Society.
At least Cruz did not give his "constitutional conservative" stump speech, or his Day One litany ("repeal every word of Obamacare"; "rip to shreds the catastrophic Iran deal"; "abolish the IRS"; etc.). All this stuff is fine for CPAC, but not for the masses. Hardly anyone is voting for Cruz over Trump because of Obamacare or the Iran deal or the IRS. Nor is the November election, as Cruz keeps saying, a "referendum on the Supreme Court," though the Supreme Court is another reason why I would vote for any Republican over Hillary.
The main issue for Republicans post-Brussels is national security; before that, it was the economy and jobs, which remain right up there. Cruz just released three mediocre television commercials that are attempts at real issues, but they are pedestrian, as if for state legislative office. The scripting is off and, most importantly, Cruz does not come across as likable.
Yet, Cruz last year had a superb spot on illegal immigrants. It didn't involve Cruz directly, but it was creative and memorable.
Going back last year, Cruz made several errors. He underestimated Trump. He miscalculated on evangelicals. He praised Trump and raised his stature. He debated formally, as if for debate judges, rather than for the people watching at home. Whether in debates or campaigning, he seems unable to go for a particular news "lead." That's what a good campaign does -- the candidate owns the news cycle.
In attacking Rubio in debates, Cruz actually helped Trump. Cruz also let Trump disparage him as "lyin' Ted" -- thus, Trump looked strong, and Cruz weak. And, even more recently, Cruz played into Trump's hand by depicting himself as The Stop Trump Guy. (Hint to Cruz: You don't have to say this; you don't want to say this.)
Instead of picturing himself as the candidate of the people, Cruz is coming across as the "Stop Trump" candidate. Cruz should be co-opting Trump's issues. He should be talking about declining real wages, the disappearing middle class, and how America is getting screwed, and going after Wall Street (not just ethanol). Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee had a feel for these issues, but they lost for other reasons.
I've reviewed data that show a majority of Republicans believe Trump will be the nominee and also that he will not be elected in November. Cruz is telling us that Trump "will lose to Hillary"; but if that's the argument, voters should go for John Kasich, who polls well against Hillary for November.
The November win argument for Cruz also is not gaining him support, because many voters don't find Cruz appealing. It's not just that polls don't show Cruz running away with the November election; Cruz doesn't come across as a winner.
That's because the main challenge for Cruz is not raising money, using hi-tech software, deploying volunteers, or campaign minutiae. It's Ted Cruz. The fun and down-to-earth guy in person comes across -- in public -- as a rigid ideologue, intolerant and formal, who talks at, rather than to, you. When Trump says, "no one gets along with Ted," it resonates, in the same way that "no energy" for Jeb hit pay dirt.
When the race started, the supporters of other candidates -- for example, Marco Rubio, said, "Ted's a good guy, and he's solid on issues, but people see him as obnoxious." But then along came Donald Trump with his insults and personal attacks, on fellow candidates, and even their spouse. Trump gave Cruz a HUUU-GE opportunity to be the nice guy.
Over more than six months, Trump has given Cruz room to show his human side, that he, Cruz, is a mensch, a kinder soul, a more sensitive person, and someone who can favor simple language and plain talk over high oratory and excess hand gestures. Let Trump be the heavy, while a more appealing Ted Cruz takes Trump's issues and runs with them.
Cruz failed to brand, on personality, in over a dozen debates. He remains stilted, on the stump and in interviews. He remains a classic example: a candidate who is bright, educated and knowledgeable, principled and thoughtful, solid on the issues, but operated solo, without the one thing a candidate most needs -- honest counsel for self-improvement. Cruz has come across as scripted, a Mario Rubio without the smile. Cruz is left by his campaign to fend for himself when it comes to the essence of a campaign -- who is the candidate and what is his persona, and can someone tweak him on a daily basis.
The rationale for Ted Cruz was that he took on the bad guys in Washington. He would not cave. Along came Donald Trump, and Cruz lost the high ground.
Cruz needs help on issues that reach people. For example, months ago his attack on Trump and eminent domain was confusing. Trump made it appear that Cruz opposed eminent domain for highways or schools, and Cruz never closed the loop. If an attack is worth making, then it's worth bringing closure. I'm not even sure that was a priority attack.
Last week the Brussels attack seemed to sustain Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric. Cruz tried awkwardly to raise the ante on patrolling Muslim neighborhoods. There is so much more Cruz could have said, like, "The U.S. should be providing leadership so that the Arab nations will help resettle their Muslim brothers and sisters." Trump faults NATO as a Cold War relic. Cruz defends this conglomerate, when the threat is less external than from within, as Germany, Belgium, England, and others enable a Fifth Column.
I'm not soft on Putin, but Rubio played the Ukraine card and look what happened to him. Voters do not grasp the relationship between NATO and Ukraine, and they don't care. Memo to Kasich: the masses are not for imposing a "no fly" zone in Syria. Memo to Cruz: Trump cuts to the chase -- defeat ISIS, deal with Assad later. All this is why Trump's euphemistic "common sense conservative" scores. In contrast, Cruz sounds ivory tower.
How sad that Obama was in Cuba, at all; that his muted response to Brussels was embarrassing, and that he ended up the week talking up socialism. And Cruz was stuck responding to Trump's tweets, which makes Kasich seem like the adult. At least Cruz probably ended up a few points higher, because Trump is sounding like a Saturday Night Live caricature of himself.
The current state of the Republican Party is not the fault of Cruz. When Morton Blackwell, the Wise Man of the Republican Party, tried to change the convention rules back in January, the RNC bureaucrats voted down his motion. Now, any change looks conspiratorial to deny the nomination to Trump, and Cruz is now cast in the unlikely role of Establishment Conspirator. And some Cruz supporters earlier had accepted the stupid rhetoric of the pundits about a "brokered" convention rather than a wonderful "open" convention that would celebrate democracy, in search of a "majority" to support a nominee.
If Trump had never been a candidate, who knows what would have happened. I'm sure Jeb would have eventually faded out, since there was no rationale for his candidacy. With some luck, Rubio might have prevailed as the "generational challenge" to Hillary. And Cruz would have been depicted as the supposedly unappealing guy with a narrow appeal. But as fate would have it, Cruz is now supported by Jeb and others.
The strategy of Ted Cruz should be to use Trump as straight man, so that Cruz can appear both presidential and amiable. Instead of Cruz as the confrontation guy, there has been Donald Trump who, for reasons I cannot understand, goes out of his way to be unpleasant. He defends his incivility with his colleagues as necessary because "ISIS is chopping off heads." With the AIPAC speech, some thought Trump might finally try to appear "presidential." Even some of his detractors root for him to grow, on the theory that if he is the nominee, they want him to beat Hillary. But, for example, with the continued vendetta against Megyn Kelly, which makes Trump look like a small man (that's only a phrase, not talking about his hands or anything else) and his attack this past week on Heidi Cruz, it appears Trump's speech at AIPAC was not a new phase of the campaign, but an aberration.
That means Ted Cruz still has time to be liked.
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