So Ted Cruz became the first official 2016 presidential candidate yesterday. And a lot of people want to know what the two-degree Ivy Leaguer and national debate champ could possibly be thinking.
He’s won exactly one campaign and has been in elected office for just over two years. His only notable legislative accomplishments are one aborted and one threatened effort to hold the federal government hostage to conservative policy goals. He is loathed with varying degrees of passion in every gathering place for the Republican elites who can effectively veto presidential candidates before they even run. His numbers among rank-and-file Republicans are lukewarm at best, and he’s lost significant ground in the last few months.
He is also in the most crowded part of the likely 2016 field when it comes to ideology. His home state is contested territory with former Gov. Rick Perry (not to mention people named Bush and Paul with close ties to Texas) apparently running, and his own Senate colleague John Cornyn refusing to back him. His theoretical appeal to the Hispanic voters Republicans fear losing for a generation is looking entirely spurious (Cuban-Americans have little in common with other Hispanic groups politically, and Cruz has been abrasively offensive to Hispanic voters’ sensitivities on immigration and other issues).
And to top it all off, he doesn’t have what you’d call a winning personality—unless you enjoy the company of someone who has been told since childhood he is the smartest person in every room, and shows it. As National Review’s Charles Cooke—who professes to agree with Cruz on most major issues—observed just yesterday:
Certainly, he is one smart cookie. But to my skeptical ears, there is always a touch of condescension in the pitch — a small whiff of superciliousness that gives one the unlovely impression that Ted Cruz believes his listeners to be a little bit dim.
So with all these obstacles to victory, why is he running for president, and why now? Is he like Sarah Palin, viewing statewide office as a bore now that he’s been the center of attention in national politics? Is he like Barack Obama in 2008, sensing that his candidacy is a unique historical moment that cannot be passed up without the risk that it might not recur?
I have no way of peering into Cruz’s soul, and thus tend to take him at his word that he is indeed on a rendezvous with destiny, not because of his ethnicity but because he believes the movement conservatism that lifted him to an unlikely Senate primary victory in 2012 is now ready to consummate its conquest of the Republican Party with the first true “no compromise” nominee since at least Ronald Reagan, and perhaps Barry Goldwater.
From that perspective, Cruz’s handicaps could, if exploited properly, become advantages. His lack of Washington experience and accomplishments and the disdain of elites are badges of honor and authenticity. His lack of intraparty popularity will be dispelled once a breakthrough victory in Iowa magnifies his prophetic voice and exposes other alleged “true conservative” candidates as pretenders, if not sellouts. His electoral “base” is not Texas but the conservative “base” everywhere. His ethnicity will be appealing to white conservatives furious at allegations of racism and nativism, and will eventually inspire the more conservative Hispanics. And his imperious personality could eventually seem appropriate to the enormous challenge he is taking on.
What he most lacks, particularly as compared to Scott Walker or even Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, is a plausible electability argument. But Cruz has completely internalized the ancient conservative belief (which dates back not only to the Goldwater campaign and Phyllis Schlafly’s book title and slogan: A Choice Not an Echo but to the Taft wing of the GOP before and after World War II) that moderation in the pursuit of a general election victory is a complete fraud. Cruz articulates this often:
“There are a lot of folks in Washington who argue that the way Republicans should win is that they should nominate a candidate from the mushy middle,” Mr. Cruz said on “Fox and Friends.” “Someone who is right in the middle, who’s near the Democrats so there’s not much distinction. … We’ve tried that.”
“Every single time we do that, whether it’s Gerald Ford, whether it’s Bob Dole, whether it’s John McCain, whether it’s Mitt Romney, the result over and over is we lose,” he continued. “I very much agree with Ronald Reagan who said the way Republicans win is we paint in bold colors, not pale pastels — pale pastels is a path to losing.”
So in his own mind—or according to his own spin, depending on how you look at it—the question is not why Ted Cruz is running for president, but instead why not?
By the standard that what Republicans and the country need is the most comprehensive “full spectrum” movement conservative: a “constitutional conservative” who can draw on the many influences—libertarian, conservative evangelical, corporate and militarist—that have shaped the Cause in its most recent incarnation. Cruz may be running not so much for president as for the leadership of the conservative movement, which in turn would makes him a viable presidential candidate now and for the five or six cycles beyond 2016 when he’ll still be of an appropriate age to run for president. For a politician of Cruz’s temperament and outsized goals and ambitions, that sure beats the hell out of working his way up the Senate seniority ladder.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.