In S.C. Showdown with Trump, Cruz Needs a Winning Economic Message

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (photo credit: Michael Vadon via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (photo credit: Michael Vadon via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

So South Carolina is where the titans clash: where Donald Trump (clearly) is going to try to knock Ted Cruz out of the race, and where Cruz urgently needs to show he can go toe-to-toe with The Donald in the South before the big SEC primary on March 1.

Trump’s decision to release his nasty attack ad on Cruz the night of his New Hampshire victory shows he understands the campaign dynamic: Kasich will struggle for a 0-2-3 strategy and head for the big Southern vote with little to show for it. Rubio and Bush will be forced to attack each other to try to win the establishment lane.

Cruz was ready with an attack ad of his own, trying to hit the same lighthearted note he has in his past responses to Trump’s attacks. I do not think the ad is very effective — don’t put kids in front to attack a Trump. But it demonstrates Cruz understands the central problem with attacking Donald Trump: the voters who don’t mind mean candidates are already in Trump’s camp, so the challenge is how not to seem weak while also not sounding mean in taking on the Trump. It’s a conundrum.

Marco Rubio lost his chance to be the Great Unifier in one moment on stage with Chris Christie. It was not the content of Rubio’s response that was the problem, but the fact he retreated to canned phrases instead of seizing the opportunity to take it to Christie on the governor’s actual record in New Jersey. Rubio is fundamentally by temperament a people-pleaser, not an attack dog. This is part of why so many of my evangelical friends love him: he’s “winsome.”

But in this campaign, where GOP voters are terrified of terrorism (sadly in my view) as well as the quite justified fear the American Dream is slipping away and nobody seems to know what to do about it, “winsome” alone is not going to cut it. Optimism that seems ungrounded in reality fades in its confrontation with blunt reality, which is what Christie provided on the debate stage.

Trump knows this in his bones. Cruz knows we are looking for a fighter. But I don’t yet see signs that Cruz recognizes an enormous asymmetry in his fight with Donald Trump: Trump is the only candidate who has a clear, defined, economic message.

I hate that message. I think it is false. My worse fear of a Trump presidency is that he will get elected and not halt the degradation of the American economy, leaving us with a socialist Democratic party and nothing to fight it with. If we elect Trump and he fails to turn the economy around, the Republican party will be wholly and solely responsible for the debacle.

But Trump has an economic message embedded in his larger narrative. He constantly tells people that the problem is that we are losing out in trade. It’s China’s fault, it’s immigrants’ fault, he’s going to build a wall and do tougher deals and then everything will be okay for you and me.

It’s not true. But voters are looking fundamentally for the reason why their standard of living and opportunities are not improving while the rich get richer.

Three-quarters of Republican voters last night in New Hampshire, according to exit polls, are very worried about the economy (as compared to 60 percent who are very worried about terrorism). Trump won those voters, edging out Kasich’s basically economic appeal 27 percent to 24 percent.

If Ted Cruz wants to be President of the United States, he’s going to have to tell us more clearly why this economy is still so bad for the average American and what he is going to do about it.

Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project.