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U.S Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is running for president as an unreconstructed conservative Republican. Cruz suggests a Republican nominee can win the presidency by waving the conservative banner and galvanizing conservatives rather than by making inroads with centrist persuadable voters.

Cruz’s template for this strategy goes back to 1980 when Ronald Reagan won the presidency. Cruz told the Conservative Political Action Conference that he is “convinced 2016 is going to be an election very much like 1980.” Cruz often repeats a line Reagan uttered four years prior to his 1980 victory: “Raise a banner of bold colors, not pale pastels.”

However, the circumstance in 1980 and 2016 are markedly different. In 1980, Reagan had the propitious fortune of running against an unpopular incumbent Democratic president. Moreover, Reagan won the presidency by mustering not solely the votes of conservatives, but also the votes of liberal and moderate voters.

Unlike Cruz, who sports a pristine conservative voting record in the Senate, Reagan’s record as Governor of California, coupled with some of the rhetoric he used in 1980, would be sacrilegious with contemporary conservative voters. In addition, the 1980 election was a referendum on an unpopular Democratic incumbent, and any standard Republican should have defeated Jimmy Carter handily. The Democratic nominee in 2016 will not be an unpopular sitting president.

Reagan did not govern California as an intransigent conservative, but as a technocratic pragmatist. In 1967 Reagan signed what was the largest tax increased in California history. Reagan did this to eliminate the state’s gaping budget deficit. When he ran for re-election in 1970, Reagan promised voters his feet were “in concrete” against establishing a withholding system of state income tax. However, as Governor, Reagan reversed course, signing a tax increase to obliterate the state’s $200 million deficit. Using humor as opposed to an excuse, Reagan commented: “that sound you hear concrete cracking around my feet.” In addition, Reagan signed the Mulford Act, restricting the use of firearms by the citizenry. Reagan also signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act, liberalizing state abortion laws, which he later came to regret.

Reagan unsuccessfully ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 against president Gerald Ford. Reagan ran to the right of Ford, particularly on foreign policy. Ford supported a detente (relaxation of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union). Reagan excoriated Ford for signing the Helsinki Accords, intoning they put a “Stamp of approval on Russia’s enslavement of the captive nations.” Under the agreement, the U.S., the Soviet Union, and 39 other nations agreed to respect the autonomy of every nation-state in Europe and not encroach on their territory.

The fight for the nomination was whisker close, with neither candidate winning the requisite number of delegates during the primary. The nomination was decided at the Republican National Convention. Reagan announced that if he garnered the nominating, he would select one of the party’s most liberal Senators, Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, as his vice presidential running mate. This show of pragmatism set off a raging inferno of indignation among conservatives. Cruz, in sharp contrast to Reagan, would never consider picking a liberal Republican as his running mate.

In 1980, unlike 2016, the Republicans had the luxury of running against an unpopular incumbent Democratic president. Americans were beset by stagflation, gas shortages, and a failure to secure the release of 44 American hostages held captive in Iran. President Jimmy Carter was blamed for all three situations and harbored job approval ratings in the low thirties. An AP-NBC poll taken in 1979 showed that 70% of Americans believed Carter could not be re-elected.

Furthermore, there was little enthusiasm for Carter within the Democratic base. They believed he was too conservative for the party and had focused on fiscal austerity rather than on expanding the social safety net. Consequently, Carter barely eked out renomination. The Democrat’s liberal bloodline had supported U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and California Governor Jerry Brown. Both men ran against Carter for the nomination. There was also a movement by panicked Democrats (who feared Carter was unelectable in the General Election) to draft U.S. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie for the nomination. Muskie did not accept the draft effort.

In July of 1980, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) met with fifteen of his Senate colleagues, asking them if Carter could win their respective states in the General Election. The only Senator who answered in the affirmative was Sam Nunn from Carter’s home state of Georgia.

Accordingly, the 1980 election should have been a slam-dunk for the Republican nominee. However, in part because of his move to the right in the 1976 campaign, Carter was successful in styling Reagan as a conservative extremist. He called Reagan “dangerous “disturbing.” This forced Reagan to spend much of the General Election campaign trying to assure the American people that he was in the mainstream of American political thought.

There was just one debate between Carter and Reagan that year. It occurred just one week before the election. Despite Carter’s anemic job approval ratings and the hunger from the electorate for change, the election was a dead heat. During that debate, Reagan essentially won the election by proving he was not a right wing ideologue. When Carter accused Reagan of having opposed the establishment of Medicare, Reagan soothingly replied: “There you go again.” In his closing statement, Reagan did not delineate a wish-list for conservatives but calmly asked the question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Thus with enough of the electorate confident Reagan was not a reactionary, the American people got the green light to vote against Carter.

Reagan did not win the General Election by appealing only to conservatives. Astoundingly, he also pocketed 48% of the moderate voters and 27% of the liberal voters. By contrast, in 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won just 41% of the moderates and 11% of the liberals.

The last example of a GOP nominee running as an unreserved conservative occurred in 1964. That year, disaffected conservatives launched a mutiny against the party’s moderate establishment by successfully working to nominate U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), a full spectrum conservative.

In his oration accepting the nomination, Goldwater made no effort to counter critics who called him extreme. In fact, he doubled-down, declaring: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me also remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Consequently, Goldwater ceded the political center to his opponent, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. With only conservative support, Goldwater was trounced, winning just six states.

Cruz uses Reagan as the archetype of a Republican who won the presidency by proudly wearing the conservative label. He fails to mention that Reagan’s perceived conservatism was a hindrance that Reagan successfully overcame. In addition, Reagan won an election any Republican should have won handily. Currently less than 40% of the American electorate identify themselves as conservatives. Furthermore, the Democratic nominee will not be an unpopular incumbent president. Accordingly, in this political environment, like in 1980, a successful Republican nominee needs to appeal to more than just conservative voters.


While waging his Presidential campaign, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is under constant criticism for missing over 30 percent of Senate votes in 2015. Rubio has also has missed Senate committee hearings in order to attend fundraisers. A major newspaper in his state, The Sun Sentinel, has called on Rubio to resign from the Senate, admonishing him for “ripping us off.”

The U.S. Senate is a unique vocation in that a person can get elected to the body, then spend as much or a little time actually doing the job of a Senator and still get paid. For example, in 1969, U.S. Senator Karl Mundt (R-SD) suffered a stroke. Mundt served out the remainder of his term, which expired in 1973, but was unable to cast a single vote during his four remaining years in the Senate.

There are two kinds of senators. There are those who see election to the Senate as the high-water mark of their career and see themselves as spoilsmen. They see their legacy as delivering as much largess to their respective state as possible. Their major focus is on issues important to their particular state. These senators largely go unnoticed nationally. They thrive to serve on committees where they can be the most help to their state.

The most coveted prize for these members is the Senate Committee on Appropriations, which controls discretionary spending. Carl Hayden, who served in the body from 1927-1969, and as Chairman of this committee from 1955-1969, accrued the nickname “The Silent Senator” because of his reticence to speak on the Senate Floor. He never sought the Presidency. Hayden instead worked behind the scenes at securing largess for his state. His greatest accomplishment was likely the establishment of the Central Arizona Project, which brings water from the Colorado River into Arizona. Securing this project would bring him little cache for a Presidential bid, but is a lasting legacy for a Senator whose legislative ambition is parochial in nature.

The other type of senator uses the Senate as a way station to the presidency. Every move is calculated toward boosting his/her national profile. These senators have little interest in the day-to-day proceedings of the Senate. They spend much of their time on the campaign hustings, raising money for their colleagues, introducing themselves to party activists in the hopes that they will earn their support in a future Presidential campaign.

The only three members of the Senate to be elected directly from the body to the Presidency are Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama. All three exhibited unspectacular Senate records and missed many votes while participating in political events. Furthermore, they all served on the Committee on Foreign Relations. Senator Rubio is following their playbook.

Rubio, like Warren G. Harding, was elected to the Senate by defeating a well-known Republican. Rubio defeated Governor Charlie Christ, who enjoyed the support of the GOP establishment by running as a grassroots conservative alternative opponent. Harding ran an insurrectionist campaign in the 1914 Republican Senatorial primary against former U.S. Senator Joseph B. Foraker (R-OH). Foraker was a national figure, having run for the Republican Presidential nomination unsuccessfully in 1908.

Also like Rubio, Harding used his Senate seat as a mere steppingstone to the Presidency, and spent much of his time as a Senator barnstorming the country campaigning for Republican candidates, collecting chits, and effectuating a national profile. Like Rubio, Harding served just one term in the U.S. Senate. During that time period Harding missed about two-thirds of Senate votes. Again, like Rubio, Harding served on the Committee on Foreign Relations to sure up his foreign policy bone fides for a Presidential run.

Similar to Rubio, Harding became a noted orator and delivered the coveted keynote address at the Republican National Convention in 1916. In 1920, at the end of his Senate term, Harding won his party’s Presidential nomination and won the Presidency.

Like Harding and Rubio, John F. Kennedy had an undistinguished Senate career. Kennedy also secured a seat on the Committee on Foreign Relations from which to showcase his foreign policy bone fides. Kennedy took full advantage of his position. He raised his national profile by appearing on national television discussing international affairs. He also wrote the book Profiles in Courage, which spotlighted U.S. Senators who had taken unpopular stands. However, Kennedy had few substantive Senate accomplishments.

In 1960, Kennedy ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination against four seasoned Senators with more accomplished legislative records: Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington, and Wayne Morse. Interestingly, Johnson unsuccessfully tried to make Kennedy’s absenteeism from the Senate a campaign issue. This is similar to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s failed attempt to use Rubio’s congressional truancy against him in a recent Presidential debate.

Both Rubio and Kennedy dexterously turned these attacks against their opponents. Bush exclaimed to Rubio: “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term. I mean, literally the Senate, what, is it a French work week where you have three days to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.” Rubio was quick to retort that Bush was modeling his campaign after U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who won the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008. McCain missed the majority of Senate votes in 2007 while campaigning. Rubio averred: “I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s voting record. The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

Rubio’s glib comment effectuated uproarious applause from the mostly Republican audience. Rubio had taken a page from Kennedy’s playbook. During a public debate between Kennedy and Johnson, Johnson challenged Kennedy for being on the campaign trail during a six-day Senate debate on Civil Rights legislation. Johnson exclaimed: “It was my considered judgment that my people had sent me to the Senate to perform the duties of a United States Senator for which I was paid $22,500 a year.” Kennedy riposted simply: “It is true that Senator Johnson made a wonderful record in answering those quorum calls and I want to commend him for it.” The issue died and Kennedy went on to win the nomination and the Presidency.

Senator Rubio is often compared with the current President, Barack Obama. Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004. As a Senator, Rubio, like Obama, won a seat on the Committee on Foreign Relations. Furthermore, like Rubio, Obama came from a State Legislative background, and as soon as he was elected to the Senate, he was mentioned in high profile political circles as a potential Presidential nominee. Obama spent much of the 2006 mid-term election cycle campaigning for Democrats around the country and became a political rock star with grassroots Democratic activists, party benefactors, and even some in the Democratic establishment who feared that the preponderant frontrunner for the nomination, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), was too divisive a figure to be elected President. By early 2007, Obama launched his Presidential bid, and over the next two years spent much of his time on the campaign trail, returning to the Senate only when the leadership needed him for key votes.

Rubio hopes to be the fourth U.S. Senator to rise directly to the presidency. He appears willing to sacrifice his Senate duties to achieve that objective. Rubio will likely continue to weather the Congressional truancy charge in his quest to join Harding, Kennedy and Obama as unspectacular senators who ascended directly from the Senate to the presidency.


Jim Webb’s Next Political Move? Some Historical Context

November 3, 2015

Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) has egressed from the Democratic Presidential sweepstakes and is contemplating running for president as an independent candidate. Webb did not catch on with Democratic voters. His opposition to most forms of gun control, his support for the Keystone Pipeline, and his opposition to the nuclear deal negotiated between the […]

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Seizing the Electoral Moment: Former Allies Bush and Rubio Battle it Out

October 16, 2015

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was once a benefactor of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). Bush donated to Rubio’s first political campaign, and in 2005, when Rubio was sworn in as Florida’s House Speaker, Bush gave Rubio a sword, informing Rubio: “I’m going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior” (referring […]

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Donald Trump Is a Political Aberration: Rather Than Hiding his Wealth and Elite Education, He Flaunts it

September 29, 2015

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump unabashedly touts himself as being “really rich.” According to Forbes Magazine, Trump even exaggerated his net worth, alleging to be worth almost $9 billion. Forbes pegs the number at just $4.1 billion. Trump brags that he went to a top tier school, the Wharton School of Business, and even sings […]

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September 15, 2015

During the last two election cycles, U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) attracted support from liberals, libertarians, and independents who were drawn to his non-interventionist anti-war message. Paul advocated a truncation of the military budget and called for U.S. troops overseas to come home. He argued that the U.S. presence abroad effectuated enmity toward the U.S. […]

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What’s in a Name? In Politics, Perhaps a Lot More Than One Might Think

September 15, 2015

The old saying goes “What’s in a name?” Actually, names can be very important in the political arena and have changed the course of American political history. In 1946, after entering a race for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, future President John F. Kennedy used a creative tactic to muster an […]

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A Biden/Warren Ticket: Announcing a Running Mate Would Be a Risky Endeavor

September 2, 2015

A recent meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) set the political punditocracy aflutter with speculation of a Biden/Warren ticket. If Biden were to announce the formation of this ticket prior to the Democratic Presidential primaries, it would effectuate a formidable obstacle for the current front-runner Hillary Clinton. Warren’s presence […]

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Donald Trump Is No ‘Good Soldier’

August 25, 2015

Many in the GOP High Command are distraught that their party’s frontrunner for the 2016 Presidential nomination, real estate magnate Donald Trump, will not agree emphatically to support the party’s eventual nominee (should Trump himself not be nominated) and will not rule out waging a potential third party bid. Trump exclaimed in an August GOP […]

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Should Biden Run for the Democratic Presidential Nomination, not Getting Endorsement of President would Not be Unprecedented

August 12, 2015

Vice President Joe Biden is believed to be seriously contemplating a bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Should he enter the race, one of his opponents would be former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who served under President Barack Obama. If Biden enters the race, Obama will likely not endorse either candidate. It may […]

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