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OPINION | NIALL FERGUSON

From TrusTed to ElecTed

Associated Press/Shutterstock; H. Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff illustration/Associated Press

I cannot imagine Ted Cruz as president of the United States. Despite his emphatic defeat of Donald Trump in the Wisconsin primary. Despite the ever-louder chorus of voices saying he is the only man who can deny Trump the Republican nomination.

It used to be said that converts to Roman Catholicism were “plus catholique que le pape.” There is something about Cruz that is more American than, well, America. That should not surprise us. Born Rafael Edward Cruz in Calgary, Canada, to a Cuban and an Irish-Italian-American, Cruz is only just a “natural born citizen,” as the constitution requires all presidents to be. He was (unwittingly, he says) a dual Canadian-American citizen until 2014. “I’m Cuban, Irish, and Italian,” Cruz has joked, “and yet somehow I ended up Southern Baptist.”

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Cruz’s ultra-conservative Texan persona seems designed to belie his cosmopolitan origins. “I don’t want to use the word ‘phony,’” said my friend Tony, who is a one-man Republican focus group. “But he reminds me of a circus ringmaster.” Dead right. When Cruz speaks, you hear the echo of P.T. Barnum. He parades new policies bumptiously, the way Barnum used to exhibit his mermaids and dwarves. To Barnum is attributed the line “There’s a sucker born every minute.” When I hear Cruz outlining his plan for a flat tax, I see those words in a thought-bubble above his head.

Everyone who went to university had a Ted in their class. You remember him, don’t you? The prematurely middle-aged pain-in-the-neck who came top in every test. The man whose voice was always just two notches too loud. The committed conservative at an age when normal students are in search of a placards and barricades.

Yet the point about men like Ted Cruz is not their unpopularity with their classmates; it is their popularity with everyone else. Right now Cruz is both the second most hated man in the Republican Party establishment and the second most popular candidate to be that same party’s presidential nominee. How to explain this paradox? It’s actually quite easy.

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Senator Cruz has missed a remarkable number of committee hearings and roll call votes. In 2013 he inflicted an interminable 21-hour filibuster — the nadir of which was a reading from Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham’’ — that never stood a chance of killing President Obama’s health care reform. For two years he directly accused the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of being a liar. All of this, in the words of veteran Arizona Senator John McCain, was “outside the realm of Senate behavior.”

But in the eyes of an electorate that has a very low opinion indeed of the nation’s politicians, Cruz’s attacks on the “cartel” that controls Congress are rather appealing. When he lambasts his colleagues as the “surrender caucus,” millions of ordinary Americans who dislike Obamacare are inclined to cheer.

Like Trump, Cruz saw the extent to which Republican voters were sick of their party establishment. The difference was that, unlike Trump, Cruz didn’t make it up as he went along. Trump was engaged in what is known on the New York comedy scene as “improv.” Nothing Cruz does is improv. He is always the master of his brief.

Nearly everyone has underestimated this man. Back in October, prediction markets said he had a 4 percent chance of winning the Republican nomination. Today that figure is 33 percent. Before accepting bets on Cruz, Betfair should have checked with his opponents when he ran for the Senate in 2012. The man is a politics machine.

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To deny Trump the 1,237 delegates required to win the nomination on the first ballot, according to John McCormack of the Weekly Standard, Cruz needs to beat Trump in Indiana and in Nebraska, split the delegates in Oregon and Washington, and then beat him again in South Dakota, Montana, and California. If he can pull this off, then we shall see the first open convention in the Republican party’s history since 1976 — meaning that there will not be a winner after the first round of voting by the convention delegates. As the majority of delegates are keen conservatives, Cruz might win in the second round. Or the third.

There is a lot of wild talk in Washington these days about “white knights” riding to the rescue at the convention. The names of Mitt Romney and his running mate — now House Speaker Paul Ryan — are bandied about. But I doubt very much either would want to accept a nomination so flagrantly at odds with the wishes of the primary and caucus voters. By contrast, if Cruz arrives in Cleveland running a close second behind Trump, then he is the most likely nominee.

No analogy is exact, but consider this. In May 1860 the Republican National Convention in Chicago was expected to nominate New York Senator William H. Seward. Few people reckoned with an unprepossessing but gifted lawyer and debater named Abraham Lincoln. He won on the third ballot.

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Now, I am not saying Cruz is Lincoln. I am just saying that, on reflection, maybe I can imagine him as president of the United States.


Niall Ferguson is professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.