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How Ted Cruz Became the Next JFK

Candidates always try to paper over their flaws by comparing themselves to iconic presidents. And it almost never works.

Cruz for President/YouTube

Coming off a dismal showing in the New York primary, Ted Cruz found some inspiration in an unusual source on Tuesday night, likening himself not only to that familiar conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, but also to the closest thing liberals have to a patron saint. “Jack Kennedy looked forward instead of back to the first half century of world war,” Cruz told supporters at the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia. “He knew that America could dream and build if we were set free—not tanks for war, but rockets for exploration.”

What could possibly have led Cruz, who’s run his entire campaign as the ultimate spokesperson for the Tea Party brand of “consistent conservatism,” to suddenly try fashioning himself as a new JFK? Simple: He can’t win the next crucial primaries running only as himself. In Maryland and Pennsylvania, the biggest states where Republicans vote next Tuesday, Cruz’s brand of “just say no” Republicanism is a hard sell.

But, please. This is Ted Cruz, the conservative firebrand who perturbs senators, actresses, and college roommates alike, a man so polarizing that Republican Representative Peter King told Morning Joe this week he would rather eat cyanide than live in a country that elected the Texas senator to the White House. You could hardly imagine someone further removed from handsome, charismatic, forward-looking JFK.

Cruz is far from the only 2016 presidential contender who’s tried to steal some thunder from a popular former president with whom he has little, if anything, in common. With the notable exception of Hillary Clinton, all the remaining candidates have tried to broaden their appeal by latching onto legendary commanders-in-chief, both in their stump speeches and their campaign ads. The historical figures they choose to reference are sometimes far-fetched, but always telling—not of the candidates’ strengths, but their shortcomings. These aspirational presidential analogies are intended to obscure and neutralize their weaknesses as a candidate—Cruz’s lack of charisma and a compelling vision, for instance. It’s a desperate strategy that is almost always doomed to fail.

This past weekend, with Bernie Sanders fighting desperately to catch up to Hillary Clinton in New York, his campaign released a new ad called “Sons of New York.” It begins with grainy footage from the Great Depression: men in bowler hats and overcoats filing through a soup-kitchen line, industrial workers in coveralls, and that other great twentieth-century Democratic stalwart, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pontificating from a podium rigged up with NBC microphones. “Even when the deck is stacked, a New Yorker will find a way to break up big banks, create millions of jobs, and rebuild America,” a narrator says. “Some say it can’t be done again. But another native son of New York is ready: Bernie.” Through the magic of editing, the final shot shows Sanders and Roosevelt together on screen, gesticulating in the same wild way from their podiums.

Last week, the Vermont senator reinforced the message by visiting Hyde Park, the upstate New York town where FDR lived throughout his life at his stately country home, Springwood. But why, in his hour of need, did Sanders, the scrappy Brooklyn-raised socialist, turn to the patrician Roosevelt?

“Making himself into a heir to Roosevelt is quite clever,” says Daniel Rodgers, a Princeton professor who studies American intellectual history. After Hillary Clinton hammered the longtime Independent senator for only officially declaring himself a Democrat this past November, telling Politico in early April, “He’s a relatively new Democrat, and, in fact, I’m not even sure he is one,” Sanders needed to establish his Democratic lineage. Aligning himself with FDR is a way to place him squarely within the Democratic tradition, considering that Roosevelt also railed against big banks, Wall Street profiteering, and the excesses of unchecked capitalism. Furthermore, Roosevelt actually succeeded in bringing his visionary proposals into fruition, something Sanders needed to show could be done, after Clinton called his ambitious proposals “pie in the sky.”

The parallels between Roosevelt and Sanders seemed to be lost on New York voters, though. Clinton swept the state on Tuesday. Her message that Sanders, while able to diagnose problems in American politics, would find it harder to fix them clearly stuck—no matter how much the Vermont senator invoked Roosevelt—perhaps because most Americans have a foggy grasp of how FDR dealt with the Great Depression in the first place.

All through the campaign, Donald Trump—a former Democrat who has called Bill Clinton the best of the last four presidents—has faced a conundrum similar to Sanders’s, struggling to place himself firmly within the Republican tradition. But rather than pay tribute to the cult of Ronald Reagan, as most Republicans have been doing since the early 1990s, Trump most often references the thirty-fourth president. “Dwight Eisenhower, a good president, a great president,” Trump said at a Republican debate in November. “People liked him. ‘I like Ike,’ right?”

On the surface, Trump comparing himself to Eisenhower seems almost as much of a laughable stretch as Cruz invoking JFK. Temperamentally, they’re polar opposites: One a bombastic millionaire spewing bigotry and self-aggrandizement at campaign rallies, the other a prim West Point graduate who, throughout his life, according to PBS, “would blush if he slipped and said a ‘hell’ or a ‘damn’ in front of a lady.”

Trump certainly has reasons for wanting to tie himself to the very model of a moderate, restrained Republican. But there are also real political similarities that give Trumpism something of a claim to a GOP lineage. “Eisenhower was very much a centrist in social issues,” Rodgers notes, and “he wanted to keep what worked in the New Deal.” Trump, of course, supports Planned Parenthood and has promised not to dismantle Social Security or Medicaid—high treason to the Republican right, but a nod to the centrism of the Eisenhower Era. Trump has also taken a cue from one of Eisenhower’s least moderate programs, promising to round up the 11 million immigrants currently living in the United States and return them to their home countries, much as Eisenhower did in the 1950s with his notorious (and offensively named) Operation Wetback, which shipped more than a million undocumented immigrants across the border in 1954 alone.

But while the Ike analogy has some basis in reality—unlike Cruz/JFK—the notion of Trump as another Eisenhower hasn’t stuck. When Trump rails against women, immigrants, and liberal elites, making wildly sexist and xenophobic statements in public, he counteracts his efforts to make himself look like a measured, polite Republican in the Eisenhower line. You can’t be “presidential” merely by likening yourself to someone who was.

John Kasich has tried to do something markedly different than Sanders, Cruz, or Trump—not only compare himself to past greats, but also use them to make another candidate look unworthy. Last month, New Day for America, the main super PAC backing Kasich, released an ad immediately after the governor won the Ohio primary. It begins with Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan flashing across the screen in quick succession. “There was a time when presidents were honorable, trustworthy,” the narrator intones. “What’s happened? We must stop Hillary Clinton.” She appears on screen, grimacing into the camera.

The ad is aimed at making Kasich look like he belongs in the pantheon of great GOP presidents. He might look like a goofy dad, the narrator implies, but he has the same mettle as Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt (forget for a moment that Roosevelt once ran for president as a Progressive, championing powerful central government and protective legislation for workers in 1912).

The commercial also hits Clinton, and in ways that might not have been consciously intended. Rodgers summarizes the message that comes across: “Hillary Clinton doesn’t belong on Mount Rushmore, but [Kasich] does.” A woman doesn’t belong, in other words, but this guy does. The commercial may not be purposely sexist, Rodgers says, but the imagery makes a pretty powerful suggestion: You see “these great men, and then a picture of this somewhat strained woman who he would like to portray as somewhat out of her depth.”

In the end, however, this could be an even less effective approach than Cruz trying to channel JFK. The strike against Clinton puts Kasich on the wrong side of history, and an astute viewer might penalize him for it. Kasich is no spring chicken, and implying that a woman would look out of place on Mount Rushmore only makes him look more out of touch.

Clinton’s own approach to history has probably been the smartest of the 2016 field: Forget about it. Clinton remains one of the few candidates who has not likened herself to previous presidents in her campaign ads; in her speeches, she’s sometimes invoked her husband (it would seem odd if she didn’t), but mainly clung tight to the current president, Barack Obama.

But by not going the “I’m the next FDR/Lincoln/JFK” route, Clinton is also attempting to compensate for her shortcomings—just by different means. One of her biggest disadvantages is that she already seems like a candidate from the past, a holdover from the last Clinton White House. In that sense, running campaign ads that link her to dead, white, male politicians would be counterproductive. Clinton needs to tell voters that she has a visionary message that can usher America into the future, and unlike the other candidates, she holds a trump card: As the first woman president, she’d make history on her own. Why look to the past for inspiration?


After the New York primary, the candidates are setting their sites on states that head to the polls next week, particularly Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Maryland. Below, we’ve analyzed six new commercials that debuted this week. You can see every presidential campaign ad that’s run during this cycle at the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive.

Bernie Sanders: “Sons of New York”

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in New York

Impact: History buffs must have loved this ad, which features archival footage of FDR. The message is clear: Bernie Sanders, like Roosevelt, is a visionary figure setting out to redefine the Democratic Party. Though it didn’t catch on in the Empire State, where Sanders finished with just 42 percent of the vote, at least New Yorkers got a little lesson in Great Depression history in the process.

Hillary Clinton: “The Same”

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg-Lancaster-York, Wilkes Barre-Scranton, Johnstown-Altoona, and Erie media markets as part of a seven-figure ad buy there.

Impact: Clinton has used a version of this ad before, but this slightly rejiggered edition is just as good as the first time. It hits all the right notes: a diverse audience; a beaming Hillary, resplendent in orange; a promise to get equal pay for women; and a very cute kid.

Hillary Clinton: “My Mom”

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired in Connecticut, in the Hartford media market

Impact: This ad, like many of Clinton’s gun-control spots, is a tearjerker. The main character, Erica Smegielski—whose mother, Dawn Hochsprung, died trying to protect her students at Sandy Hook elementary school in December 2012—is an eloquent spokesperson for Clinton. But she really gets you with this line: “She reminds me of my mother. She isn’t scared of anything.”

Ted Cruz: “Not Easy”

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Pennsylvania

Impact: Highlighting Clinton and Trump’s privileged backgrounds, this is one of better spots to come from the presidential contenders in recent weeks. It ought to play well in hardscrabble Pennsylvania, where the line, “My father gave me a small loan, of a million dollars,” will hardly endear Trump to rank-and-file voters.

Ted Cruz: “Right”

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Pennsylvania

Impact: You have to give Cruz points for succinctness in this 15-second ad. But it can sound a little overly aggressive as the narrator rockets through his bullet points: “Grow jobs,” he says. “JOBS. Freedom. Security. CRUZ.”

Ted Cruz: “Solutions”

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Pennsylvania

Impact: Ah, Ted Cruz, ever on a quest to make himself look presidential with the line, “solutions over slogans.” He’s aired a version of this ad before, in Wisconsin. But this new and improved version has a redoubled emphasis on manufacturing jobs going as the campaign heads into Rust Belt Pennsylvania.