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Ted Cruz must change if he wants to be president

Analysis

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, hero to the tea party and villain to liberals, predicted Saturday that Republicans will win control of the Senate in November, then went on to edge out Dr. Ben Carson in a straw poll taken on the last day of the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans.

Cruz had uplifting words for the party faithful in attendance. “I am convinced we are going to retake the United States Senate in 2014,” the junior senator from Texas said, no equivocation whatsoever in his distinct voice.

Cruz is the latest in a long line of polarizing Republican politicians who are skilled at speaking to people who share their political and cultural views but who come across as nothing more than provocateurs to Democrats and many independents who find their positions on a wide variety of social issues only slightly to the left of Genghis Khan.

The 2014 RLC featured the usual cast of characters, including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, soon-to-be former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was not in attendance, which may explain why Cruz won the straw poll. Paul finished third, behind Cruz and Carson but ahead of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who did not attend the event, and Perry. The conservative website therightscoop.com posted the full results.

Should Cruz and Paul both run for president in 2016, they will be battling for the same voters – conservative Republicans disenchanted with the presidential nominating process. The last two election cycles saw relatively moderate candidates Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney take the GOP nominations, and both years, hard-right Republicans weren’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm for their party’s nominees.

Many of the politicians attending the RLC have either failed in past presidential bids or are gearing up for a go at it next time around. Santorum and Perry, who came up short in 2012, are likely to give it another try; Jindal and Cruz are giving every indication that they will seek the nation’s top office in 2016.

But how can Cruz, with a 23 percent favorability rating nationally, hope to compete with likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who enjoys a 50 percent favorability rating?

Unless Cruz undergoes some sort of a dramatic transformation, he can’t. Without growing up at least a little bit, he will be just another Republican sacrificial lamb if he somehow emerges as the nominee out of a very crowded GOP field.

This leaves the Republican Party between the proverbial rock and hard place. The more conservative Republicans most certainly don’t want repeats of 2008 and 2012, when the eventual GOP nominee was at least somewhat moderate when compared to other presidential hopefuls in the field. But if Cruz emerges as the Republican nominee in 2016, any winning strategy will have to rely on converting swing voters to see things his way, and his way is not the way of most Americans.

Consider one of his biggest applause lines at the RLC speech:

“[In] Texas, like Louisiana, we define gun control real simple,” Cruz said. “That’s hittin’ what you aim at. And so three of us, Rand Paul, [Utah Sen.] Mike Lee and myself sent a very short and sweet note to Harry Reid … we said we will filibuster any legislation that undermines the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”

While such rhetoric may go over well with RLC attendees, the fact is that a December 2013 CBS News poll found that 85 percent of all Americans and 84 percent of gun owners supported federal background checks on firearms purchases.

Cruz talks a good game when he’s preaching to the choir, but his positions on a wide variety of hot-button issues do not jibe with those of American voters. He is opposed to same-sex marriage, for example, and ontheissues.org even says he opposes gay pride parades. A May 21 Gallup poll found support for same-sex marriage at 55 percent nationally, with 8 in 10 voters under 30 supporting marriages between people of the same sex.

In January, Cruz criticized Obama for not enforcing federal marijuana laws in Colorado, where voters legalized use of the drug in 2012. Nationally, 55 percent of respondents in a January CNN/ORC poll said recreational use of marijuana should be legal.

Cruz may think that he can persuade voters to come around to seeing things his way on these kinds of issues, and there’s always an outside chance that he can. But a better approach for Cruz to take if he wants to win the presidency is to try and understand why most Americans feel the way they do on social issues as he opens his mind to the possibility of seeing things differently.

If Cruz could begin seeing social issues in a less reactionary, judgmental way, he might have a chance at persuading voters to at least give serious consideration to his economic policies, which in turn might increase his chances of winning the White House. But if he stays mired in rigid thinking about guns and retains discriminatory attitudes toward gays, lesbians and marijuana users, he’ll never be more than just a conservative darling who gives a good pep talk but does little more than stand in the way of progress when it comes to doing the right thing for the American people.

Additional sources and resources:

“The GOP’s grifter problem,” Slate, May 31, 2014

“Ted Cruz mocks gun control advocates,” The Daily Beast, May 31, 2014