Commentary Magazine


The Ted Cruz Political Paradigm

We’re far enough away from 2016 that rumors about possible presidential candidacies are all equally true and untrue. Anybody can talk about running and anyone can talk/write about those thinking about running. But the rumors being floated about Ted Cruz have struck a nerve in a way that, say, the scenarios about similar long shots such as Scott Walker or Kirsten Gillibrand do not. Cruz has made himself an usually large number of enemies for a man who has spent only 100 days in the Senate along with the outsized publicity he has garnered for his bare knuckles-style of political fisticuffs that he has displayed in this period.

But although I think Seth makes some excellent points about how a Senate where all the major players have an eye on the White House is doomed to dysfunction, I think it is a mistake to view Cruz as a conventional politician on the make. If there is anything we’ve learned about him, it is that although his Texas-sized ego and ambitions are very much in evidence, he is working off a slightly different playbook than that of potential GOP rivals Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.

I should state first of all that I don’t take the speculation about a Cruz run for the presidency all that seriously. I don’t doubt that Cruz could raise the money for a run and that his high profile would make him a contender. Nor do I think, as Seth noted, that his rivals should underestimate him. In fact, I think almost all of them would regard the prospect of debating him with some trepidation and with good reason. The Texas senator leaves scorched earth behind him even in routine political speeches. Imagine what he’d do on a podium with the GOP presidential nomination on the line.

But where his potential rivals for the nomination have been carefully trying to cultivate new friends and reassure their base in the lead-up to 2016, Cruz is just swinging away on the issues without showing many signs of cold calculations. It may be that making enemies at a record rate can build you a constituency of contrarians, but it is not the textbook path to the White House. Far from picking his fights carefully the way a would-be president would do, he is simply fighting anyone he disagrees with. My sense is that he is merely going with the flow and seeing where the publicity that results from the fights he is naturally drawn to leads him.

Along these lines, I think today’s feature in Politico about Cruz captured a bit more of the truth about his prospects than a lot of those who have been hyperventilating about the possibility of him running for president. While that piece was mostly written from the point of view of those who don’t like the Texan, it rightly points out that all he has been doing is expressing the views of a great many conservatives who would like more of their representatives to play the “arsonist” in the go-along-to-get-along world of D.C. politics. If he is happily exploiting the notoriety he has received from his confrontations with other senators, it’s not because Cruz is carefully operating off of a blueprint aimed at taking him to the White House in four years, the way it seems at times that Rubio and Paul are doing. He is, instead, merely pursuing a vision of how to use a Senate seat that is at odds with the conventional approach that most of his colleagues have followed. We’ll find out whether that leads to bigger things in the future, but in the meantime, Cruz is going to play out the hand he has dealt himself.

Though he has seemingly invited demonization, for all of the outrage about his rough handling of Chuck Hagel and calling his Republican colleagues “squishes,” Cruz has yet to do anything that even remotely justifies the comparisons that liberals have been making to Joseph McCarthy.

Cruz has come along at a moment in our political history when the conventional wisdom about Washington is that we need more dealmakers and compromisers. Though conservatives tend to prefer the old William F. Buckley approach of dealing with liberalism by standing athwart its path and saying “no,” Tea Party favorites like Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey have chosen instead to reach across the aisle to craft compromise legislation on immigration reform and background checks for gun purchases. I happen to think each of their efforts are good policy and smart politics for the Republican Party, but it is not a surprise that Cruz opposes both since he sees compromise with the left as inherently dangerous for both his party and the country.

Such an approach is antithetical to passing legislation, but Cruz’s mission is not to ameliorate the impact of liberal ideology; it is to stop it cold. If he has emerged as a major player in Republican politics it is because unlike other rabble-rousers who kibitz about Washington from the sidelines (such as his backer Sarah Palin), he chose to dive headfirst into the D.C. maelstrom and proceeded to mix it up. Under these circumstances it’s only natural that he would become one of the most important as well as one of the least-liked members of the Senate.

Those who think there’s something illegitimate about an untried freshman stepping forward in this manner don’t know their political history. The notion that seniority is everything in Congress was a 20th-century innovation that had no resonance in the first century and more of our political history. So, too, is the idea that it is presumptuous for a Senate greenhorn to think about the presidency. It’s not just, as Politico points out, that Barack Obama did it. It’s that the idea of waiting your turn is just a device by the political establishment to keep order, not a sacred rule of democracy.

That said, I still don’t see much of an opening for Cruz in 2016 against competitors who are working off a more conventional game plan. The expectation that he can parlay his command of a niche of his party into a successful presidential candidacy is probably to exaggerate the scope of his appeal and to underestimate the strengths of the other contenders. There just isn’t that much room between Paul, Rubio and others like Bobby Jindal or Rick Santorum for a candidate who is as short on charm as Cruz is to win.

But the political paradigm that Cruz represents is one that isn’t going away. So long as conservatives view government as inherently dysfunctional he may find himself assailed by the media and many of his colleagues but adored by a significant faction of his party. 

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