Conservatives Demand Satisfaction–and It Costs Them Elections

Ted Cruz and the perverse incentives created by the most energized members of the Republican base

Explaining how Ted Cruz could win the Republican nomination, Ben Domenech of The Federalist observes that he doesn't just match up with energized conservative voters on policy, "he matches up with their brashness, their yearning for someone who loves the taste of blood in his mouth ... His words are sweet music to the conservative right which has wanted a capable fighter for so long. Here’s a guy who’ll fight the lion and the midgets at the same time." Near the end of the same article he draws an apt comparison to The Godfather. "His campaign is likely to be one of the most aggressive of all of those who are playing with the idea of running ... He’s Sonny Corleone, and he’s here for a fight."

What I love about that comparison is the idea—which I don't want to impute to Domenech unless he holds it, too—that movement conservative voters would rather have Sonny Corleone running their enterprise than Michael Corleone. I speak only for myself in insisting that this makes them immature fools in matters of politics even if one fully embraces their ideology and policy preferences. The sorts who prefer a Sonny Corleone conceive of themselves as wanting "a capable fighter." But in the end, Sonny was not a good fighter. He was an impulsive fighter, aggressive even when it was senseless. He was unable to delay gratification or suppress rage. Being led by a Michael may be less satisfying, but Michael was the more capable fighter. There is no question that, as a rival, you'd rather face off against Sonny.

Of course, the personas of politicians are always at least partly an act.

Senator Cruz's resume is that of a Michael. He was valedictorian of his high school, graduated from Princeton cum laude, was a champion debater, finished magna cum laude at Harvard law, edited the Harvard Law Review, clerked for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and has argued before the Supreme Court nine times as a state solicitor general while writing dozens of Supreme Court briefs. That such a brilliant, accomplished man so regularly comes off as a petulant, short-sighted phony is inextricable from the demands of the conservative base, and the sorts of personas that it tends to reward.

They say they want "a fighter" but unthinkingly value punches thrown far more than fights won. So Cruz has thrown a lot of uppercuts in the Senate with little to show for it—except, of course, the inflation of his own profile. More like the WWE than the MMA, movement conservatives hand out heavyweight titles based on flash to "fighters" with zero knockouts to their name. This is the GOP faction that thought Sarah Palin was qualified to be vice president and likely to make a McCain White House conservative. That which rouses their enthusiasm harms their causes, as when Palin and later Mitt Romney insulted half the country to appeal to the base.

This "Sonny mindset" has been inculcated by talk radio and Fox News. Too many conservatives are accustomed to thinking of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin as the figures who are sticking it to the liberals and advancing the conservative cause, goals that they think one can pursue without tradeoffs. I'm reminded of a classic exchange between Levin and a female caller to his program:

CALLER: I just wanna say, Obama is a lot smarter than you folks give him credit for. You guys were on a roll, I have to admit, with all those tea parties. Everything was rolling along, the Republicans were gaining momentum. And he managed to change your entire conversational focus. And you let those three hundred thousand people —

HOST: My God. He’s so smart. His own party voted against him on Guantanamo Bay. How stupid was that, Cindy? His own party refused to fund the closing of Guantanamo Bay.

CALLER. Yeah but you know he can just move those people over here anyway. He’s already doing it with the one guy.

HOST: Yeah, sure, he can do whatever he wants. Let me ask you a question. Why do you hate this country?

CALLER: No, I love this country.


You just said it. He can blow off Congress. He can do whatever he wants, right?

CALLER: Well, he seems to, he just moved (inaudible).

HOST: Answer me this, are you a married woman? Yes or no?


HOST: Well I don’t know why your husband doesn’t put a gun to his temple. Get the hell out of here.

A normal person, conservative, liberal or independent, hears an exchange like that—a man on the radio yelling at a woman about her husband putting a gun to his temple—and thinks, "That's awful. What a jerk. I don't want anything to do with that guy." Whereas a Sonny Corleone conservative thinks, "Mark Levin is The Great One! He showed that liberal! Finally a guy on our side who will go to the mattresses!"

During primary season, conservative voters are calibrated to want talk-radio-level moments of emotional satisfaction from their candidates. Senator Cruz's path to the GOP nomination appears to be very narrow. But if he spends the 2016 primary making a big show of throwing punches and casting himself as Sonny for President, the likeliest effect is to force his rivals, including the eventual nominee, to employ more of their own faux-fighterly rhetoric in turn—"severely conservative" rhetoric unlikely to change how they'd govern but very likely to make them less electable. And all the while, the base will cheer them on.