LYNCHBURG, Va. — Ted Cruz’s widely anticipated announcement here on Monday that he’ll run for president is guaranteed to spook his fellow Republican hopefuls.
Not because he’s necessarily better positioned to win the 2016 nomination than others such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Rather, he has a unique appeal to the hard-core conservative base that produces ample votes in GOP primaries, and he has a knack for portraying solidly conservative Republicans as establishment hacks and squishes.
Where Cruz stands out is not his ideological principles — he shares common beliefs with many of his rivals — but his scorched-earth tactics in service of those principles, and his proclivity for painting fellow Republicans with tactical disagreements as capitulators.
Here are five issues that Cruz emphasized in his kickoff speech to a crowd of thousands at the evangelical Liberty University, all of which could drive a scare into his Republican adversaries, who may feel compelled to tilt rightward to fend him off.
If there’s one position that Cruz is guaranteed to obsess about, it’s wiping Obamacare off the books completely. “Imagine in 2017,” he told the crowd, “a new president signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare.” The cheers were deafening.
Cruz proved his influence and rose to national fame — or notoriety — by goading congressional Republican leaders into the government shutdown of 2013 by insisting Democrats would cave if the GOP held firm. It failed, but the senator’s other goal was achieved — he became a hero to tea party voters, even as the party’s image suffered among the broader electorate.
Unlike 2014, which produced a far more conservative electorate than is likely in 2016, the issue of Obamacare could be tricky for Republicans this time. Hillary Clinton has attacked the idea of repeal as a way to strip 16 million Americans of health care coverage and let insurers “write their own rules again.”
This is a particularly dangerous issue for Republicans in 2016, because a critical bloc of general-election voters in swing states are Hispanics who overwhelmingly support immigration reform. Here, too, Cruz has pushed scorched-earth tactics to block President Barack Obama’s executive shield for certain undocumented immigrants, such as a government shutdown and a halt to confirming nearly any nominee in the Senate.
“Instead of the lawlessness and the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty, imagine a president that finally, finally, finally secures the borders,” he said. “And imagine a legal immigration system that welcomes and celebrates those who come to achieve the American dream.” Emphasis on legal.
While Walker and others share Cruz’s opposition to any path (though not necessarily his tactics) on immigration, Jeb Bush has been emphasizing the need to offer “legal status” to unauthorized immigrants. Will that position hold up against Cruz’s attacks on the debate stage, particularly if Bush continues to struggle with the base?
It’s not often you see thousands of college students go wild with applause over the idea of a flat tax, but that’s what happened when Cruz pushed it at Liberty University. “Imagine a simple flat tax,” he said. “that lets every American fill out his or her taxes on a postcard.” The crowd ate it up. “Imagine abolishing the IRS.” A standing ovation.
Neither of these things is remotely likely to happen — the IRS isn’t going anywhere, and a flat tax at the rates conservatives want would blow up the deficit and make the tax code much less progressive.
But again, that’s not the point. These ideas sound wonderful to the GOP base, and fellow candidates seeking to balance a conservative message with economic and political reality will feel pressure to one-up Cruz.
The tide of American public opinion is turning rapidly in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples, as Republican strategists acknowledge. But the conservative faithful remain opposed for largely religious reasons, and Cruz told the evangelical audience that he stands with them.
“Imagine a federal government that works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage,” he said.
With the Supreme Court expected to hand down a blockbuster decision this summer that will put the issue back on the map, it’ll be very difficult for Republican candidates to choose between alienating their base or the growing national consensus.
As far as hard-core conservatives are concerned, Common Core is one of those issues that symbolizes big-government intrusion at its worst, and Cruz declared his emphatic opposition to the idea — it is a swath of federal standards about what skill-sets students ought to have acquired during grade school.
“Instead of a federal government that seeks to dictate school curriculum through Common Core, imagine repealing every word of Common Core,” Cruz said to applause.
It may not be the sort of kitchen-table issue that makes or breaks a candidate, but that signifier is strong enough on the right to make GOP hopefuls worry. Need proof? Jeb Bush is being assailed for his support for Common Core while Walker has dialed back his support for the concept.