I'd like to think that Senator Cruz committed campaign suicide last night when he doubled down on his criticism of Donald Trump's "New York values" at the latest Republican presidential debate. At the very least Cruz showed his true colors, or at least the color of his neck. I suggested yesterday that Cruz and Trump represent rival forms or potentials for 21st century populism. Many won't like either option because populism is exclusive by nature, but Cruz, as the creature of the Religious Right and the radio talkers, is more exclusive, or at least more divisive, than Trump seems to be. Both may feed distrust of foreigners but Cruz seems to go beyond that. While Trump's base remains something of a mystery, Cruz's seems to be pretty familiar. They're the people of the self-styled heartland who imagine themselves despised as "flyover America" by the hated cultural or countercultural elites of either coast. Apparently in Cruz's populism, if we can even call it that, there's no room for "people who are socially liberal [as opposed to, say, Muslims?] or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage....Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan." Are we that far already from when Rudy Giuliani, admittedly no prize otherwise, was "America's Mayor" and a potential Republican nominee himself? Perhaps he was a victim in his ambitions of the same prejudice Cruz pitches now.
Cruz may be right about the absurdity of Trump's questioning his eligibility for the Presidency -- while Trump was typically and cynically candid about his self-interested motivation for doing so -- but he seems to be right about little else, yet Right about everything else. He's been surging lately because the Republican primary base is pretty much the same as it ever was, but he seems to have forgotten that the old base isn't the only force out there anymore. If he thinks he's fighting Trump for the old base, I suspect he's mistaken. Trump may well still collapse if he continues to neglect retail politics, but my guess is that he's inspired new people to get interested in an election rather than winning over GOP dead-enders. His "trust me, I'm great" argument still seems pretty pathetic to someone not infatuated with Trump's TV persona, but for all the talk of how divisive his campaign has been, I think his supporters see it differently. While establishment critics have focused on his exclusionary attitude toward immigrants, his fans probably see him as a unifier, which is probably the key to his populist appeal. If I'm right about this -- whether his fans are right is another story -- then the worst thing Cruz could have done, if he still hopes to inherit Trump's supporters, is to go divisive on geographic lines. Worse still, Cruz is an idiot if he didn't see how Trump could use 9/11 to hit the Texan's pathetic attack on New York like a slow, straight pitch out of the park. There are many Republicans out there, not to mention many others, who want to see the party nominate anyone but Trump, but Cruz should make people rethink that stand. It may be hard to believe, but from the country's perspective the GOP could do worse than Trump -- and right now it still has a good chance of doing so.