There was little surprising about Ted Cruz’s event in Brooklyn last week—apart from, well, Ted Cruz, Republican candidate for president, being in Brooklyn. Cruz toured a matzah factory deep in the borough, near Brighton Beach, then gave a short speech at a synagogue a few doors from the factory.
You didn’t have to be there to know what he said to this gathering of Jews (mostly Orthodox Jews, with a smattering of more secular Jews from the former Soviet Union, who are prevalent in the area). He will stand with Israel. He will be tough with Iran. Donald Trump said he will be neutral on Israel. Ted Cruz won’t be.
It was exciting that a Republican presidential candidate had visited Brooklyn, especially for purposes other than fundraising, but the event was so staid, so square, and so uneventful that there was only a tiny bump of press showing Cruz awkwardly pressing some matzah before the media went back full-throttle to his “New York values” comment from months ago.
After Cruz’s speech, he retired to another room with a few reporters from local Jewish papers. The rest of the crowd filed outside. Men were wearing red yarmulkes with “Ted Cruz” printed on them alongside “I’m with Teddy” in Hebrew. People had their cell-phones out, waiting to snap that last pic as Cruz exited the building and walked to his waiting SUV.
Missing Opportunities to Break the Pack
In the crowd was a small group of black teenagers. I assume they were around 16 years old, wearing school backpacks, probably from Abraham Lincoln High School a few blocks away. They too had their phones out, waiting. One of the girls in the group got tired of waiting about 10 minutes in, and said she was leaving. One of the boys said, “You don’t want to see the next president?” She answered, “I’ll see him on TV.”
In my dream situation, a GOP candidate who has made his way out of Manhattan to the boroughs stops and talks to those teens. He would ask them their names and what’s important to them. It’s not just for the news story—although a ton of media were at this event with nothing to cover, so it would definitely have been a news story—but for the experience for everyone involved. To be fair, when Cruz emerged about half an hour later, he didn’t talk to anyone on his way out. It wasn’t like he ignored the teens to speak to others. But an opportunity was definitely missed.
Cruz exists in a strange, new reality. He has a very strong possibility of becoming the Republican nominee for president. In any other year, Cruz winning the nomination would be earth-shattering.
Cruz is no Mitt Romney and he is no John McCain. While Romney and McCain, two adorable moderates, were portrayed as wild-eyed right-wingers when they ran for president, Cruz is a real-deal conservative. His 100 percent rating from the Heritage Foundation, compared to McCain’s paltry 52 percent, is amazing for a possible nominee. In any other election, we’d talk nonstop about having a candidate who is as consistently, and comfortably, conservative as Cruz. But this isn’t any other election.
The Year of Unusual Politics
It’s impossible to ignore that this is the year both political parties are flirting with fringe candidates who do things differently. With a very tenuous grasp on policy and a shallow understanding of most issues, Trump and Bernie Sanders have still managed to dazzle voters. In large part this is because of the unconventional races they are running. Voters are tired of the scripted events, these buttoned-up politicians. They want something real and everything else is taking a back-seat to that.
When Trump yells at the protesters at his events, he’s wrong and he’s not presidential, but it’s different and unusual than the regular political rally that has supporters cheer the politician’s name until the protester is removed. He gets his fans riled up to vote for him, to defend him and to stand by him. That’s a powerful thing, and Cruz has to understand that for many Republican voters he’s their third or fourth choice for president. He needs to really connect. Being the anti-Trump is good for now, but soon more will be required of him.
Republicans have lost the last two presidential elections in part because they have ignored that things have changed. Authenticity is everything now, being “real” counts for more than ever before. If Cruz wants to get a different result, he’s going to have to do things differently.
He can and should take the lesson of Trump and Sanders and try to connect better with people on a grassroots level, even and especially when those people aren’t donors or even old enough to vote for him. Enough with the comfortable speeches, only to sworn supporters, in arenas where we’re always welcome. Cruz needs to adjust to what the voters are hungry for, the “real” candidate who speaks plainly, and he needs to do it quickly.