Senator Ted Cruz started off his presidential campaign with a bang but, in recent weeks, he’s been falling back in the polls as other candidates have gotten most of the publicity. Part of that stemmed from the ability of his competitors to steal the spotlight with their own announcements as well as the ability of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio to inch ahead of the pack and form what looks like a top tier in a race that may eventually include up to 20 candidates. With only four percent of Republicans supporting him in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Cruz seems to be lagging in the competition for his natural constituency: Tea Party voters. So in order to recapture their affection, Cruz needs to do something to illustrate once again that he is the true rebel against the GOP party establishment. His answer: come out against the fast-track trade bill currently working its way through Congress. A stand geared toward exploiting conservative animus toward President Obama and illegal immigration may give him a boost. But the only problem with this decision is that Cruz already voted for the Trade Protection Authority (TPA) bill back in May. He’s claiming that nefarious secret deals between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Democrats are motivating his switch. But a Ted Cruz flip on trade could undermine the key element to his political identity as the one man in Washington who will never compromise on his principles.
As Cruz notes in his Breitbart.com op-ed explaining his change of heart, he is an ideological supporter of free trade. But he took a lot of criticism from some Tea Partiers for his vote in favor of TPA who seem to think anything that President Obama favors should be opposed. In the piece, Cruz exploits fears about trade leading to efforts toward amnesty for illegal immigration and sounds a populist note about opposition to reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank whose fate has become tied to that of TPA. Sounding more like the Ted Cruz who took the GOP down the rabbit hole of the government shutdown than the more reasonable senator who voted for a trade bill that most of his party has always supported, Cruz now says the whole thing must be stopped.
Trade appeared to be the one issue on which common ground could be found between the administration and the Republican leadership in Congress. Though the left wing of the Democrats and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has so far prevented passage of TPA, the vote today to end debate on the measure in the Senate (on which Cruz was on the losing side) seems to ensure that it will ultimately be passed and signed into law.
Cruz’s enlistment to the ranks of those trying to stop the trade bill does not appear to have derailed the legislation. But that does not appear to be his main objective. Instead, Cruz is making a cold hard calculation that he can rally a critical mass of his party’s base to his candidacy by positioning himself in opposition to the party establishment. The Ex-Im bank issue doesn’t have a lot of resonance with the grassroots, but merely mentioning immigration in connection with the name Obama may be enough to convince a lot of Republicans that Cruz is once again leading the charge against a party establishment they despise. Running against “backroom deal-making” is always popular, and most Tea Partiers already like Cruz and think any cooperation with the Obama White House is wrong in principle.
But there’s something of an air of desperation to this move that makes me think that Cruz’s normally deft touch with the party base may be slightly out of order here.
It’s all well and good to accuse Mitch McConnell of being a slippery customer or criticizing House Speaker John Boehner of acting the tyrant in punishing House Republicans who rebelled on this issue. But it is just as easy to accuse Cruz of putting himself into a tacit alliance with Pelosi and the labor unions in an effort to halt much needed international trade as it is to label supporters of TPA as being closet Obama-lovers. As much as many Tea Partiers have opposed the bill because of the Obama connections, standing up against free trade is still a better tactic to win the Democratic nomination than that of the Republicans.
Moreover, Cruz is also setting himself up for a classic putdown in the presidential debates. Every one of his competitors will hope for a chance to call out Cruz for pulling a John Kerry on trade by saying he opposed it after he voted for it. That’s not a winning formula for Cruz, who hopes to parlay a brilliant speaking style (and champion debating skills) into a shot at the Republican nomination. Up until now, the one thing you could never accuse Ted Cruz of doing is flip-flopping on the issues. With his turnabout on trade, that record is broken.