This is a very different Ted Cruz than I remember.”
That was correspondent Kasie Hunt’s assessment on “Morning Joe” as the Republican senator from Texas told the crew about his good relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and newfound ideological crossover appeal.
“Right now in the Senate, I am in a fairly unusual position, because I’m able to speak with real credibility to conservatives, but also able to speak to moderates, to leadership, to the president, to the administration and to try to bring everyone together,” Cruz said.
It’s certainly early, but it all looks a little familiar.
After running to the right of John McCain as the conservative champion in 2008, Mitt Romney was suddenly back in 2012 as the establishment candidate. The gambit worked. Romney had just enough credibility with the conservatives that, when combined with his new establishment support, he came away with the nomination.
Though temperamentally opposites, Ted Cruz appears to now be running from the Romney playbook. Last week while Cruz was laughing it up on the Morning Joe set, he was also shifting from his campaign conservatism back into establishment good graces.
On the topic of Trump’s new tariffs, Joe Scarborough invited him to criticize the president. “I’m sure you lit him up on the campaign trail about sounding like a Democrat when it came to tariffs,” Joe said.
Cruz passed on the opportunity to correct the record, but the truth is he took great efforts to hide his deep free trade roots during the campaign. In 2014, Elaina Plott explained that Cruz’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “easily aligns him with the conservative-populist voters who’ve helped fuel his meteoric rise through the ranks of the GOP…” In the heat of the Wisconsin primary, his campaign released an ad in which Cruz said, “I’m going to stand up for fair trade and bring our jobs back from China.”
Last week, he was back to being Free Trade Ted.
“I think tariffs on steel and aluminum are a mistake,” Cruz told “Morning Joe” viewers. “I think there are a lot more jobs in this country that are dependent on steel and aluminum as inputs, and we are going to end up costing more jobs because of the tariffs than will be saved.”
Cruz appears ready to back the establishment bet that Trump is an anomaly, and the GOP will return to the trade policies of the Bushes, Romneys, and Kristols once Trump is gone. But is that the case?
When a lifelong free trader like Cruz starts running ads saying, “I’m going to stand up for fair trade,” it would seem an acknowledgment that the ground has shifted. What was obviously a powerful sentiment against unfettered free trade during the primaries has likely grown stronger.
As Trump has made his case, former free trade advocates have begun to rethink their own positions. In a recent column at Townhall, free-trade supporter Kurt Schlichter had a change in tone: “I like free trade—I just don’t like snooty ideologues who won’t take their own country’s side in a trade fight.”
Along with Cruz’s tacit nod to a shift in party principles, add Jeff Flake’s explicit statement in a March 11 appearance on “Meet the Press.” After the U.S. senator from Arizona admitted he wasn’t seeking re-election because he couldn’t win a Republican primary in his home state, Flake was asked directly if the Republican Party is still the party of free trade.
“You know, it’s tough to make that case right now, really,” Flake said. “Free trade is rarely popular out on the stump, you know, in a campaign, but usually after the campaign the Congress gets together and says, ‘Alright, let’s pass Trade Promotion Authority or let’s pass this trade agreement.’” This is precisely true. And part of the problem. Congressional Republicans are simply out of step with their voters. A new Morning Consult poll this week, for example, found 70 percent of Republican voters support Trump on tariffs.
Cruz is a shrewd politician who came closer than most figured to pulling off the nomination last time. Shedding his street-fighter image and moving into establishment good graces may well be good politics. But when it comes to trade, Cruz, and his fellow Republicans might also consider the oft-quoted assessment of British statesman Lord Salisbury: “The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”
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