Commentary Magazine


Topic: evangelical vote

Is There a Realistic Ted Cruz Scenario?

A broad cross-section of Republican officeholders, major donors and conservative pundits are agreed on one thing: Ted Cruz has no chance to be elected president. The junior senator from Texas marked the fifth anniversary of the signing of ObamaCare by announcing his candidacy for the presidency today at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia and no one in the chattering classes thinks he has a prayer of being sworn into office as commander-in-chief in January 2017. Just about everyone thinks his positions on the issues are too extreme and that his advocacy of the 2013 government shutdown and the complete antipathy of the rest of the Senate and the party establishment make it impossible for him to win. Even those who sympathize with his politics tend to agree that he just isn’t likeable enough to gain his party’s nomination, let alone win a general election against a Democrat. But his detractors need to understand something. As his announcement this morning showed us, he is a fabulous speaker and a dynamic personality with a unique appeal. The scenario that Cruz is hoping will make him the GOP nominee may be a very shot indeed but it is not crazy.

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A broad cross-section of Republican officeholders, major donors and conservative pundits are agreed on one thing: Ted Cruz has no chance to be elected president. The junior senator from Texas marked the fifth anniversary of the signing of ObamaCare by announcing his candidacy for the presidency today at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia and no one in the chattering classes thinks he has a prayer of being sworn into office as commander-in-chief in January 2017. Just about everyone thinks his positions on the issues are too extreme and that his advocacy of the 2013 government shutdown and the complete antipathy of the rest of the Senate and the party establishment make it impossible for him to win. Even those who sympathize with his politics tend to agree that he just isn’t likeable enough to gain his party’s nomination, let alone win a general election against a Democrat. But his detractors need to understand something. As his announcement this morning showed us, he is a fabulous speaker and a dynamic personality with a unique appeal. The scenario that Cruz is hoping will make him the GOP nominee may be a very shot indeed but it is not crazy.

When stacked against those of his Republican competitors, it’s easy to see why few think the Texan has much of a chance. The party elites that are, as Nate Cohn rightly points out in his New York Times Upshot column about Cruz today, still important to winning nominations, are united in their opposition to him. He will raise money but nowhere near as much as Jeb Bush or even other conservatives like Scott Walker. Nor can he claim to be the sole candidate seeking to appeal to Tea Party conservatives, who tend to adore him, or even the evangelicals that he is courting by announcing at the school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Cruz is also widely hated by most of his Senate colleagues and tends not to come across as a guy most people would want to have a beer with. Last week’s viral story about Cruz supposedly scaring a little girl at a New Hampshire event was inaccurate and unfair. If anything, a look at the tape of the encounter showed him to be sensitive and actually quite caring about the child’s reaction to his rhetoric about President Obama setting the world on fire. But it resonated because that is how most adults, Republicans and Democrats alike, tend to think about him. Indeed, I think the likeability factor is a much more important obstacle for Cruz to overcome than his ideology. As a recent Wall Street Journal poll illustrated, the number of those who can envision supporting him barely outnumber those who say they can never back him.

But even if admit up front that Cruz’s path to victory is as steep as can be imagined, the party establishment and others that loathe him would still be foolish to underestimate him or his power to play a serious role in the GOP race.

If there is anything that we have learned about him in the two and a half years since he began throwing bombs in the Senate and upsetting his colleagues, it is that Cruz is utterly undaunted by criticism or long odds. In the view of more moderate conservatives, that makes him unwilling to listen to common sense. But it also gives him a certain power that more realistic figures lack. You may think Ted Cruz is over-the-top but he does not care.

He brings to the race certain strengths that his rivals lack. As I noted backed in December, “If you’re going to make comparisons to 2012 candidates, imagine someone with the folksiness of Rick Perry (albeit in a Cuban Texan version), the passion of Santorum on populist and social conservative issues, the debating skill of Newt Gingrich, and the wonkish grasp of details of a Mitt Romney and you have a fair idea of what Cruz brings to the table.”

Though debates will not be as ubiquitous this time as they were in 2012, they will still be crucial. Cruz’s ability to eviscerate opponents is something his opponents should fear. Nor is he, despite his embrace of suicidal tactics like the shutdown, someone who will embrace crackpot positions on vaccines or show ignorance about foreign policy.

Jeb Bush is the darling of the establishment. Scott Walker is in a sweet spot that can embrace the party establishment, Tea Partiers and evangelicals. Rand Paul has the libertarians. Marco Rubio is the strongest voice on foreign policy and can also appeal to both wings of the party. Mike Huckabee will compete with him for the populist vote and Rick Santorum for religious conservatives. Others will have their own strengths. But the sheer size and strength of this field (especially compared to 2012) makes is more likely that someone we now consider an outlier may break through. Cruz isn’t likely to be the one who will do so but neither is it insane to think that he might. Others also face long odds, but few have his potent political skills.

The problem for those writing off Cruz’s candidacy as absurd is that the very same factors that make him so unappealing to his Senate colleagues and the party establishment can endear him to grassroots voters. He may be inexperienced in office with only two years in the Senate on his resume but he is also untainted by the compromises that responsible officials must make because he has never compromised on any issue. If Cruz can tap into the Tea Party base and become its standard bearer, he will be a formidable candidate in the early primary states. After that, it will be anyone’s game. Right now, that’s about as realistic a scenario as any of his competitors can claim.

None of that changes the fact that it is hard to see how he could win a general election and Republicans who want to win are not only never going to consider him but will move heaven and earth to stop him if he does get close to the nomination. But they should not assume that this is a possibility they’ll never have to contemplate. The Ted Cruz scenario for Republicans is a very long shot but those chuckling about his early announcement are making assumptions that the party base may not back up.

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Huckabee Should Have Stayed on TV

Mike Huckabee’s announcement this past weekend that he was ending his run as host of a show on the Fox News Channel left little doubt that he was seriously considering running for president. The former Arkansas governor made a respectable try for the White House in 2008 earning an upset triumph in the Iowa caucus and had a reasonable argument for his claim that he, rather than Mitt Romney, was the runner-up to eventual winner John McCain. With a popular folksy manner and the loyalty of fellow evangelicals, Huckabee might be said to have as good a chance as any of the long list of potential contenders or at least to the title of leading conservative candidate. But such optimism about his chances fails to take into account the fact that 2016 isn’t 2008.

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Mike Huckabee’s announcement this past weekend that he was ending his run as host of a show on the Fox News Channel left little doubt that he was seriously considering running for president. The former Arkansas governor made a respectable try for the White House in 2008 earning an upset triumph in the Iowa caucus and had a reasonable argument for his claim that he, rather than Mitt Romney, was the runner-up to eventual winner John McCain. With a popular folksy manner and the loyalty of fellow evangelicals, Huckabee might be said to have as good a chance as any of the long list of potential contenders or at least to the title of leading conservative candidate. But such optimism about his chances fails to take into account the fact that 2016 isn’t 2008.

While few in the GOP establishment are taking him seriously, not everyone is dismissing Huckabee. In an interesting piece on Real Clear Politics, Scott Conroy argues that with Iowa coming first in January as it always does and a Super Southern Primary following early on in March 2016, the thinking in some quarters is that Huckabee can, at the very least, duplicate his early 2008 success if not make a serious run at the nomination. According to this argument, Huckabee’s best ally is the calendar that emphasizes states in which evangelicals play a larger role than in other states later in the campaign.

There’s something to be said for this reasoning, in that Huckabee hasn’t disappeared in the nearly seven years since his presidential campaign ended. By hosting a Fox News show for the last few years, he has managed to stay on the radar of conservatives. While not among the higher-rated cable shows, Huckabee has nevertheless burnished his reputation as a genial and intelligent speaker often as interested in human-interest stories as in political controversies. That continued popularity in some parts of the right has enabled him to maintain decent polling numbers that often place him above or even with more talked-about 2016 contenders such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or Rand Paul. It’s likely that with that profile he can raise enough money to be at least competitive in the early stages when the terrain is most favorable to his hopes.

But the notion that Huckabee can pick up where he left off in 2008 is still somewhat fanciful.

Let’s start with the fact that the field that Huckabee snuck up on to score an unexpected win in Iowa is nothing like the one he will face a year from now. Chief among those challengers for his particular niche of Republican voters is Rick Santorum who narrowly won Iowa in 2012 with the same formula of beating the bushes in every county of the state. But both of them will also be up against Ted Cruz who will have his own appeal to evangelicals as well as Tea Partiers and other conservatives. And that’s not even counting, among others, the second coming of Rick Perry and the possible candidacy of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who may be able to bridge the gap between the party’s establishment and activist wings.

Just as important is that his opponents will see him coming this time. The fact that the conservative Club For Growth is already starting to attack him for what it claims is his big government pro-tax and spending record in Arkansas is damaging by itself. But it’s also a harbinger of the kind of opposition research that will raise his negatives in ways he never experienced in 2008.

Time has not stood still in the last eight years and Huckabee will find that the room he once had to himself in the party is not only crowded but filled with younger, hungrier candidates who are better prepared to fight for it out. Considering that his chances of actually winning the nomination are slim and those of his being elected in November even slimmer, his decision to abandon his TV perch seems like more a case of hubris than of sound planning. A year from now, as he seeks to get back into the media after what is likely to be an unsuccessful second try for the presidency, he may rue his decision to leave Fox for what seems like a rather unlikely scenario for success.

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Obama Solidifies the GOP Base for Romney

The rationale behind President Obama’s decision to flip-flop on gay marriage and come out in favor of the idea isn’t any mystery. Democratic strategists rightly believe that any issue – no matter how divisive — that diverts attention from a failing economy is good for the president’s re-election campaign. That is why most Republicans have reacted to the matter with an impatient desire to get people talking about discouraging employment and growth figures. But that doesn’t mean the GOP didn’t reap an important dividend from last week’s big story.

The mainstream media has lionized the president for his stand, and most Americans may be either pleased or at least unopposed to gay marriage. But by choosing to embark on this initiative, President Obama has done his opponent in the November election a big favor. One of Mitt Romney’s biggest problems was the clear lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy on the part of his party’s base. But the endorsement of gay marriage is exactly what the Republican standard bearer needed to mobilize an army of evangelicals who were looking for a reason to get excited about an election in which they weren’t very happy about their choices. As the warm reception that Romney got at Liberty University this past weekend shows, he needn’t worry about his centrist image depressing the turnout figures among this key sector of Republican voters.

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The rationale behind President Obama’s decision to flip-flop on gay marriage and come out in favor of the idea isn’t any mystery. Democratic strategists rightly believe that any issue – no matter how divisive — that diverts attention from a failing economy is good for the president’s re-election campaign. That is why most Republicans have reacted to the matter with an impatient desire to get people talking about discouraging employment and growth figures. But that doesn’t mean the GOP didn’t reap an important dividend from last week’s big story.

The mainstream media has lionized the president for his stand, and most Americans may be either pleased or at least unopposed to gay marriage. But by choosing to embark on this initiative, President Obama has done his opponent in the November election a big favor. One of Mitt Romney’s biggest problems was the clear lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy on the part of his party’s base. But the endorsement of gay marriage is exactly what the Republican standard bearer needed to mobilize an army of evangelicals who were looking for a reason to get excited about an election in which they weren’t very happy about their choices. As the warm reception that Romney got at Liberty University this past weekend shows, he needn’t worry about his centrist image depressing the turnout figures among this key sector of Republican voters.

Throughout the campaign, the conventional wisdom has been that like 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, Romney would have trouble getting conservatives to care enough about his candidacy to work hard for his election. Moreover, even after he wrapped up the nomination, the fear has been that he would be caught between the twin perils of having to either continue to pander to evangelicals in the general election or losing them by shifting back to the center for the general election.

But Obama solved that problem for Romney with a single stroke that reminded Christian conservatives why they have no alternative but to turn out in November. When weighed against this blow to their values, factors such as Romney’s history of changed positions on abortion, his lack of fluency with the idiom of social conservative rhetoric and the unfortunate hesitancy on the part of some evangelicals to back a Mormon count for nothing.

After the administration’s assault on the Catholic Church in which the president’s signature health care program was used to force it to pay for practices it preaches against, there is a heightened awareness that religious freedom is going to be an issue in the election. And though, as the New York Times reports, the president has sought in the days after his decision to allay the fears of many pastors that his gay marriage stand will lead to government punishment of those faiths that don’t go along with his view, there is little doubt this is an unstated threat that scares many religious Americans. The example of Catholic and Orthodox Jewish institutions being run out of the adoption field in some states because of their views on gays is instructive.

President Obama needn’t fear African-American disaffection because of this issue even though many share the social conservative views of their white evangelical counterparts. In spite of their differences with this president on this point, black churches will continue to be rallying points for the president’s re-election.

But by pinning hopes on a belief that pushing liberal stands on social issues is the key to re-election, Obama has relieved Romney of the burden of having to spend any of the next six months worrying about whether evangelicals will turn out for him.

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