Ted Cruz, who has become one of the Tea Party’s most prominent voices, has officially announced his bid for president. But how is it that a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, a Bush appointee, can pass muster as the standard-bearer for a movement that is supposed to represent anti-elitist, anti-establishment, “real America”?
To understand Cruz’s role in 2016, one must recognize that the Tea Party in Washington today is a not an insurgency from below. It is a realignment within the Republican establishment that has committed the party to a position of extreme non-compromise. As Megyn Kelly pointed out yesterday, Ted Cruz has put himself at the vanguard of that strategy. The willingness to naysay, more than any policy position or connection to the conservative grassroots, is what distinguishes him from other Republican presidential hopefuls.
Let’s remember: The Tea Party, more than an organization or even a movement, was a political moment. In early 2009, the person and the policy proposals of President Barack Obama galvanized grassroots conservatives. But, after the exceptionally unpopular President Bush left office, the Republican brand was toxic and the party leadership was in disarray. Encouraged by conservative media, rank-and-file Republicans built ad hoc local “Tea Party” groups to oppose the new president’s agenda. There was plenty of room at the top for any Republican who could seize the “Tea Party” momentum.
At the national level, those who profited were rarely actual newcomers. Instead, longtime conservative insiders like Dick Armey and Jim DeMint became “Tea Party” leaders. Although the adoption of the Tea Party name and symbolism gave a sense of novelty to this intra-party realignment, there is nothing new about the rightmost wing of the Republican Party except its ever-increasing authority.
Today, we are reaping the candidates the Tea Party has sown. One of these is Ted Cruz, whose 2012 campaign received support from several major players in the Tea Party field, including Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund and Dick Armey’s Freedom Works, as well as other longtime funders of the far right, like the Club for Growth. These players aren’t new, but their degree of power is; the Republican Party has been growing more conservative for decades, and the Tea Party was only the latest step in that direction.
There is no contradiction, then, between being a Washington insider and being a “Tea Party” conservative, as long as the candidate is untainted by a willingness to compromise. Despite his establishment credentials and fancy degrees, Cruz is stylistically perfect for the Tea Party. His air of intransigence, his taste for dramatics over governance—it all fits the bill. As long as he holds the line on gun rights and immigration, defends Christian conservative values, and promises to abolish the IRS, Ted Cruz can be the kind of guy who looks down on those attending the “minor Ivies” without suffering for his elitism. Moreover, a policy of non-compromise results in austerity by gridlock, just the outcome that pleases the Tea-Party-funding elites that want a government unable to regulate their industries.
At the grassroots and in Washington, Tea Partiers have figured out that what matters is not any particular politician, but rather the partywide enforcement of the hardline position. It was not important that Mitt Romney had implemented the Massachusetts version of Obamacare. What mattered is that, by the end of the 2012 campaign, Romney was committed to Obamacare’s repeal.
In this context, Ted Cruz will, at minimum, serve as a powerful conservative voice in the upcoming Republican primaries. The real question is the impact his voice, along with others on the far right, will have on other Republican contenders. Will his candidacy allow another Republican to stake out an apparently “moderate” position, simply by being more amiable in their style, while hewing to the far-right line on substance? Or will Cruz’s candidacy force the party, as Tea Party candidates have done in the past, to positions and postures that are too extreme to win outside of the reddest states and districts?
In either case, it doesn’t matter whether Cruz can overcome what seems to be a shortage of personal charm, which has turned off some Republican party elites. The conservatism he espouses will continue infuse into the Republican platform as a whole. The shift will not represent an insurgency against a Republican establishment, as the Tea Party is often wrongly described. Indeed, my own research suggests that the number and vibrancy of local Tea Party groups peaked in 2010. In his own state of Texas, local activists look to elites like Cruz to revitalize their efforts; they can offer little or no momentum of their own. Instead, the Tea Party will have served to benefit a particularly conservative strain of the existing Republican leadership, and a scorched-earth approach to politics that is fundamentally incompatible with governance.
Vanessa Williamson is a PhD candidate in Harvard University’s Department of Government, and the author, with Theda Skocpol, of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.