Commentary Magazine


The Complicated Question of a Cruz Presidential Candidacy

If Republican primary voters were huddled in a laboratory underground creating their ideal presidential candidate for the 2016 political climate, it’s easy to imagine this candidate’s resume. He would have grassroots bona fides, preferably by defeating an “establishment” Republican in a primary. He would come from a red state with a strong conservative political base. He would be able to blunt the party’s poor reputation among minorities. He would be unafraid to publicly challenge Democrats wherever he could find them. He would be a skilled debater. He would be young and telegenic. He would be connected to major party donors. He would have an Ivy League education. And he would provoke irrational hatred from the media.

He would be, basically, Ted Cruz. This fact is apparently not lost on many on the right, including Ted Cruz. National Review’s Robert Costa is out with a story today on the Cruz-in-2016 buzz. But there are some questions about a Cruz candidacy–aside from the one of his eligibility, since he was born in Canada to an American mother–that are more difficult to answer definitively than they may seem. The first question is: Though the speculation that he’ll run is good for his reputation, would actually running for president in 2016 be good for Ted Cruz’s career? Obviously, if he won the presidency the answer is yes. But because he’s a freshman senator with no real record in office yet, a general-election loss would make him a has-been before his first term is up.

It would be less harmful to Cruz if he didn’t win the nomination, since the loss would sting but he could always run again and win, as John McCain and Mitt Romney both did. But those two candidates were centrist Republicans who wanted to appeal to the middle. A rejection by the base only confirmed their perceived status. If Cruz were to be rejected by the base, it could be interpreted as a rejection of his brand of politics, which is specifically designed to appeal to the base. Romney and McCain still had the self-styled centrists; Cruz would be isolated if rejected by the grassroots.

The key here is that a long career in the Senate–something his potential rivals, who are more focused on the party’s legislative agenda, would likely embrace–doesn’t seem to be what Cruz wants. “He didn’t run for the Senate to get cozy,” a former Cruz colleague tells Costa. If that’s the case, then he should choose his inevitable national election wisely.

Is a Cruz presidential candidacy good for the GOP? Chatter about Cruz being a serious presidential candidate helps the GOP by highlighting yet another possible future star and reinforcing the impression that the party has a fairly deep bench and a diverse collection of lawmakers. And since the media like to caricature conservatives as racist and anti-intellectual, a Cruz candidacy would introduce the voters to a side of the Republican Party the right desperately wants to showcase. Additionally, Cruz’s debating skills are well known, something that would matter greatly if the Democratic nominee in 2016 is Hillary Clinton (though it would matter far less if the Democrats nominated Joe Biden or Martin O’Malley).

However, there are two aspects to a Cruz candidacy the party might consider. First, it isn’t necessarily a good thing for the party for its leading agenda-setters in Congress to also be its leading presidential candidates. The skills needed to advance a successful legislative agenda in Congress often clash with the considerations that go into a presidential candidacy. This isn’t to single out Cruz specifically. But if the party’s principal House and Senate figures are all considering a run for the presidency, that will shape the legislation they put forward and the bills they choose to support or oppose. In one sense, that’s productive: the instant-accountability to GOP voters means they know they’ll answer for their vote. In another sense, it’s counterproductive: the state or district that elected each lawmaker is not the same he’ll face in a GOP primary, which may mean he’ll sacrifice his constituents’ interests on the altar of national ambitions.

Second, as Christian Heinze points out, Cruz could absorb enough of the conservative vote to clear a path for a candidate seen as more moderate. That may be good for the party’s general-election fortunes–Heinze mentions Chris Christie as a possible beneficiary of this, and Christie is almost surely a more electable general-election candidate–but it might not be what primary voters had in mind. To expand on the point: Cruz could split the Hispanic vote with Marco Rubio, the libertarian vote with Rand Paul, the social conservative vote with Mike Pence (and others), etc.

Cruz’s command of the issues and his experience–which includes clerking for former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist–mean his detractors are probably underestimating his ability to appeal to centrists. He is unlikely to be underestimated, however, by his fellow candidates if he chooses to run.

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