Historians and journalists love to analyze all the smart things a winner does to carry an election. How many pieces have just been written about how Bill de Blasio grabbed the Democratic primary in one city, even if it is New York? After a presidential contest a whole library of titles sprouts like mushrooms on how the champion pulled it off.
In a lot of cases, however, that's only half the story. A major victory usually results from a smart winner, plus an opponent who helped the other side through his ineptness. You need to see both sides to understand what happened.
In modern times there have been four presidential landslide elections. In two cases Democrats won, in two cases Republicans did. The champs were: FDR in 1936, LBJ in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Now in all these contests, the winners were superb political players, and it is inconceivable that they would have lost. But in each case what turned a solid year into a landslide was not just what even these doyens of presidential campaigning did, but the incompetence of the player on the other side.
In 1936, FDR, one of the great live wires in the history of the presidency, faced Kansan Alf Landon, a man with the raw, unadulterated dynamism of unflavored Cream of Wheat. It was like pitting Daniel Boone against a Cub Scout.
Barry Goldwater, LBJ's opponent in 1964, is now applauded as having integrity and being the forerunner of the conservative revolution. But as a candidate he was a catastrophe. When asked about the contents of his campaign book, a volume he had authored, he had to admit he never read it and didn't know what was in it. One commentator observed that Goldwater seemed to be a casual student of his own works.
George McGovern was no better in 1972. As the nation grappled with how to deal with Vietnam, split and anguished, McGovern stepped forward and declared with no subtlety that he would withdraw all troops right away, with no preparation of the battlefield or of his countrymen. I knew plenty of liberal Democrats so alienated they jumped on Nixon's bandwagon.
Minnesotan Walter Mondale was a good old fashioned stump speaker when he ran in 1984. I saw him talk before a few hundred people and he did pretty good, gosh darn it. But he had no appeal on the airwaves. Mondale observed after his devastating loss that no candidate should ever run who didn't play well on television. And Ronald Reagan, his opponent that year, was the master.
What does this history lesson have to do about politics today? It indicates that Ted Cruz may be the best friend the Democrats have. Not for President Obama, for whom Cruz must be like an abscess that keeps oozing, but for the wider Democratic Party. And not for the American people, threatened with financial disaster because of this senator's antics.
Cruz is in the news, of course, because of his grand, extended oration on Obamacare. By so doing, he has positioned himself as the leader of the party of the past, of a declining share of the electorate.
Yet, many commentators feel that he has actually been quite successful. The Texas senator has put himself at the head of the Tea Party segment of his party, challenging the authority even of John Boehner, who is supposed to lead from a different chamber altogether. Cruz has emboldened his forces, mobilized them, got them back into the fray swinging and fighting, with a bold leader at their helm. The Senator, in other words, successfully engaged a giant faction of one of the two major parties, placing himself on the charger in front. That's quite a record, quite an accomplishment. And the battle march has just begun.
Cruz has become a dynamic, charismatic leader to his people. And a godsend to the Democrats.
The only way Republicans can win wider victories is to broaden their base and reach out to new constituencies. In 2012 the Democrats got more than 70% of the Latino and the Asian vote, had strong showings among women and youth. And Ted Cruz speaks for old, white, straight people. Even better, he alienates all those other folks the Republicans need to win with his bombast and overinflated claims.
But he is making himself the face of the Republican Party, a kingmaker who inserts himself with great energy into every public debate. Think that's going to help or hurt in a national (as opposed to local) election?
Here's the scenario. It's 2016 and Marco Rubio or Chris Christie is making a good case for a Republican president, working hard to appeal to a majority of the electorate. Then, along comes Ted Cruz, saying things that make people cringe. Nevertheless, the candidate has to show abeisance, bringing all his gentler words under suspicion, reinforcing that all those things Americans feared were true about crazy Republicans, still really are.
Thank you Ted Cruz.