Ted Cruz has a problem. Since he launched his campaign for president at Liberty University more than a year ago, he has aimed to consolidate the right. He has largely succeeded. He has vanquished Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Carly Fiorina, and now he enjoys the overwhelming support of movement conservatives. His problem is that he trails Donald Trump anyway. And in its final months, the 2016 campaign is moving to a series of states — New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, California, Washington, Oregon — where movement conservatives aren’t so numerous.
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In primary states with more moderate Republican electorates, Cruz has gotten crushed. He won less than 10 percent of the vote in Massachusetts and Vermont. He won less than 15 percent in New York. So last night, Cruz changed his message. He’s no longer running as Mr. Conservative. He’s running as an outsider, a healer, and the voice of generational change. Judging by his speech last night, it won’t be easy.
Cruz began the speech by talking about “towns and faces that have been weathered with trouble, joblessness, and fear” and “factories that are closing.” The people suffering this economic distress, Cruz explained, “have made it clear. They cry out for a new path. This is the year of the outsider. I’m an outsider. Bernie Sanders is an outsider. Both with the same diagnosis. But both with very different paths to healing.”
This borders on gibberish. First, Cruz is declaring himself an outsider at the very moment he has stopped being one. In state after state, the Republican establishment is rallying around him in an effort to stop Trump. That’s why Cruz is destroying Trump in the insider’s game of selecting delegates.
Second, Cruz and Sanders most definitely do not share the “same diagnosis” of what ails the American economy. Sanders thinks the problem is too little government. Cruz thinks problem is too much government. The reason many voters angered by joblessness and factory closings are choosing Sanders is because he promises to use government to save their jobs—free markets be damned. He’ll end the trade deals they hate and disempower the billionaires who promote them. Trump promises aggressive government action, too: He’ll renegotiate trade deals and seal the border. Cruz, by contrast, has tailored his economic message to the hedge-fund managers and energy tycoons who fund his campaign.
Finally, the idea that Cruz and Sanders offer “paths to healing” is bizarre. Cruz’s ultra-partisanship repeatedly brought the federal government to the brink of shutdown. Sanders promises a political “revolution.” That’s not healing. It’s ideological total war.
After comparing himself to Sanders, Cruz then compared himself to Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. “Ronald Reagan and Jack Kennedy were outsiders,” he declared. “They both represented a whole new vision and vibrancy, a new generation of ideas. Jack Kennedy looked forward instead of back to the first half-century of World War. He knew that America could dream and build if we were set free—not tanks for war, but rockets for exploration. Reagan looked out to us, the most powerful force for innovation that the world has ever known. There we found new tech pioneers like Bill Gates and a young Steve Jobs.”
More gibberish. Except for his Catholicism, Kennedy was hardly an outsider. When he ran for president, he had already served 14 years in Congress. His father had been Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. As for the idea that he promised, “not tanks for war, but rockets for exploration,” that’s wrong, too. Kennedy didn’t campaign on sending a man to the moon in 1960. He mostly promised rockets for war. One of his key pledges was to erase the “missile gap” that he falsely claimed existed between the United States and the Soviet Union.
And the line about Reagan, Gates, and Jobs? It’s word salad. Cruz doesn’t say Reagan actually did anything to enable the innovations of Microsoft or Apple. How could he have? Both companies were founded during the Ford presidency. Cruz merely says that Reagan “looked out to us,” and “there we found” Gates and Jobs. In other words, Reagan was conscious that he governed a lot of people, and during his presidency, many of those people began buying the products that Gates and Jobs sold. Inspiring.
“Now it’s our turn,” Cruz continued, in full JFK-mode. “This generation must first to look inward, to see who we really are. After years of being beaten down, years of being told we couldn’t, shouldn’t, or wouldn’t, this generation needs to answer a new set of questions: Can We? Should We? Will We?” OK, but can we, should we, will we what? The new, post-ideological Cruz doesn’t say. When he ran as a conservative, the Texas senator brimmed with edgy policy proposals: repeal Obamacare, repeal gay marriage, repeal the Iran nuclear deal, ban abortion, deny citizenship to undocumented immigrants.
All that’s gone now, replaced by pure wind. His generation of Americans, Cruz informed us last night, will “restore our spirit free our minds and our imagination create a new and better world bring back jobs and freedom and security live as neighbors, friends, and family, in peace, once again restore our rightful place in the world change the world through the hope of freedom’s enduring promise and our unrelenting spirit,” whatever that means.
Then, near the speech’s end, came the strangest analogy of all: Cruz not as Sanders, Reagan, or Kennedy—but as Pope Francis. “We have so much that binds us together: our families, our work ethic, our ability to dream and build unlike any people in history,” Cruz declared. “But most of all our charity, our love for our fellow men and women, and our willingness to sacrifice for those in need We will heal the sick, feed the poor, and defend the defenseless.” Huh? The Pope just took several refugee families to live with him at the Vatican. For his part, Cruz proposed banning Syrian Muslim refugees from entering the United States and deporting those America had already let in. The Pope has called inequality, “the root of social evil.” According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Cruz’s tax plan would cut taxes dramatically for the richest 1 percent of Americans while raising them for the poorest 20 percent.
It’s hard to see all this working. Cruz is not a healer. He’s not a champion of the poor. He doesn’t even come across as particularly youthful. (The New York Times noted last year that, Cruz is “just a few months older than [Marco] Rubio, but no readers or political commentators that we could find have made an issue of his age.) He’s an articulate, ambitious, uncompromising, life-long conservative. He has been giving speeches on Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek since high school.
Take the conservatism out of Ted Cruz and you’re left with what he delivered in his speech last night: nonsensical mush.
This article was originally published in The Atlantic.