If Sen. Ted Cruz loses a close election to Hillary Clinton in 2016, remember this week.
Because it might be the political moment when Cruz fumbled away an opportunity to put his best foot forward with some of the voters of color who he—or any GOP candidate—will have to try wooing if he wants to be president.
It’s not just that he told a Heritage Foundation audience on Wednesday that the U.S. Senate needs “100 more like Jesse Helms.” It’s that in the process of celebrating the late North Carolina senator, Cruz stepped on his own message about the most important issue of the day—Syria—at one of the rare times when he finds himself on the same page with black, Latino and Asian American voters.
And even the next GOP nominee won’t win anywhere close to a majority of minority votes, he’ll have to figure out how to peel away a few more than Mitt Romney did in 2012. And saluting Helms doesn’t really help.
Helms was, in the words of the Washington Post’s right-leaning Jennifer Rubin, “an avid supporter of segregation,” and “an unreconstructed bigot who devoted his life to the defense of white supremacy” according to the Daily Beast’s left-leaning Jamelle Bouie.
But it’s not like anyone’s asking Cruz to proactively denounce Helms. As a North Carolinian myself, I’m fine with taking the “well, that happened” approach to Helms’ legacy and moving on. It’s a wonder, though, that Cruz would want to publicly praise the guy who once called the University of North Carolina the “University of Negroes and Communists,” who filibustered legislation to create the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday and who—as late as 1996—deployed the infamous “white hands” ad in his last senate race against architect Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first African-American mayor.
Of course, if Cruz has sincere affection for Helms, he’s more than welcome to share it.
We are, as they say, a free country.
But down the road, if he runs for president and finds that his showing among minority voters—who went overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—is the reason he lost, he’ll have to remember that the “free country” thing works both ways.
Because even if they agree with Cruz on an issue, putting Helms on a pedestal sends the wrong signal to black, Latino and Asian American voters about the Senator’s priorities. And in this case, the irony is that minority voters do agree with him on at least one issue.
When Cruz wrote in Tuesday’s Post that Syrian President “Assad’s actions, however deplorable, are not a direct threat to U.S. national security,” and argued that it’s “not the job of U.S. troops” to be the world’s police, he wasn’t just on the side of most Americans—he was on the same page with voters across demographic groups, with a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reflecting that across demographic groups, either a plurality or majority oppose military action.
And—notably—Cruz found a way to make a coherent case against Obama’s plan for Syria without personally attacking Obama.
That all got buried, though, under the coverage of Cruz fawning all over Helms. It’s both a “no sale” for potentially persuadable voters, and it’s the same messaging problem that Republicans create over and over: losing the GOP’s basic pitch—tax less of my money and spend what you do tax more wisely—to indulge in a crowd-pleasing sound bite.
Syria is an issue Cruz could have worked with if he wanted to pull a little closer to the voters of color who’ll increasingly play a role in picking our next commander in chief.
Instead, he pushed them just a bit further away.