Cruz-Induced Angst and Christian Virtue

Poor David Brooks. He wants to write about what ails the evangelical affection for Ted Cruz and what he sees as a tenuous relationship with Christian virtue, but he seems to misapprehend that compassionate conservatism is so 2000. In today’s column, he laments that Cruz boasts impressive polling numbers among evangelical voters, but that “in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace.”

I would like very much to live in a bubble with idealized religion, but alas, I have a penchant for writing about politics. Politicians, yes, of both parties, no matter how much they talk about God and faith, have a penchant for wanting to win campaigns. Pertinent example: last month, the Times unearthed a debate prep memo Cruz prepared for then-candidate George W. Bush in 1999, in which he took a softer stance on immigration than he does today. Cruz told a Princeton alumni magazine the following year that “one of the reasons I was so eager to help Bush is the way he has described himself, as a compassionate conservative,” adding, “that’s how I have always conceived of my own political views.”

You don’t hear much talk of compassionate conservatism on the 2016 campaign trail. If it hadn’t been placed in the dustbin of history before 2015, Donald Trump has gleefully smashed it with a sledgehammer.

Marco Rubio, who seems to be trying to eschew Cruz-style apocalypticism, is stuck behind Trump and Cruz. Some conservative pundits have acquiesced, betting on the nomination going to either Trump or Cruz, or asking whether it’s time that Rubio panic. The Rubio campaign sees the polling numbers, reports National Review, and is still banking on winning as a coalition candidate, even if Cruz seems to have the evangelical vote sewed up.

The most recent poll of likely Republican Iowa caucus-goers out of Quinnipiac University shows Cruz leading among white evangelical voters, with 34 percent; Trump is second with 27 percent and Rubio is third with 13 percent. But look at some other data within that poll, and you’ll find that while Trump draws the support of a little more than a quarter of white evangelicals, another quarter of them (26 percent) say they’d definitely not support Trump. Only three percent of white evangelicals say they’d definitely not vote for Cruz, and only eight percent say they’d never vote for Rubio. Trump, in other words, is the candidate most divisive of white evangelical voters (in Iowa, at least).

While that demonstrates a more mixed evangelical view of Trump, taken together that looks good for Cruz, suggesting that Brooks (shocking, I know) doesn’t really have his finger on the pulse of the Republican base, or its sense of Christian virtue. Brooks laments his harsh tones (Cruz’s “brutalism,” he calls it), the doom and gloom, the fire and brimstone—has he been recently to a religious right event, or watched one on TV? It’s true, as I reported last week, that the Rubio camp is aiming for a different tone, but what does it tell you that its approach isn’t working with evangelical voters (so far, at least)? Rubio’s supporters, unlike Brooks, recognize the dynamics at work here, and realize the hold that the Cruz view of Christianity has on significant segments of the base.

Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein, who takes the reasoned, evidence-based approach of a political scientist, still thinks Rubio is the most likely nominee at the end of the day. If that happens, as it did with John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, it will be despite the fact that evangelical voters in Iowa preferred a different candidate (Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012). And while that might make David Brooks breathe a sigh of relief, it won’t make the voters who fell in love with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz disappear.