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July 18, 2013 11:48 AM Why Not Ted Cruz?

By Ed Kilgore

I know some people are annoyed by ridiculously early 2016 speculation, but sometimes it is unavoidable, particularly when early activity is occurring in early caucus and primary states, where presidential politics is never “out-of-cycle.”

And so, with Ted Cruz giving the heaviest players in the GOP nominating process their first glimpse of him at an Iowa Republican Party fundraising “picnic” in Des Moines tomorrow, it’s appropriate to wonder how well he will go over.

Political Animal friend and occasional contributor Rich Yeselson asks that question in a Politico op-ed today, and then turns it around: why not Ted Cruz? Looked at critically, the fiery Texan has few of the handicaps that could bedevil other potential ‘16 rivals. But just as importantly, he embodies the “constitutional conservatism” that is the dominant ideology at the GOP grassroots, and communicates it with a rare clarity and power:

Cruz is a deeply religious Baptist who opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. He is more supportive of the right to bear arms than Rambo on stilts and steroids. He also believes the constitution permits the radical diminution of the federal government, and he thus lives at the crossroads of the U.S. conservative ideological synthesis. Cruz further insists that libertarianism will be good for the 47 percent and stands ready to champion the libertarian populism that some Republican pundits envision. Unlike, for example, his Senate friend and rival, Rand Paul — who is likely to face fierce opposition from neoconservatives, veterans, party pundits, and media elites regarding his Kucinich-esque national security policies —Cruz also enthusiastically carries forward the party’s typical militarist affect, and underscores it with a demagogically retro Cold War rhetoric reminiscent of the famous senator he uncannily resembles: Joseph McCarthy.

A quick side-note here: it is often forgotten that Joe McCarthy was insanely popular among grass-roots conservatives and even many Democrats before he overreached by attacking his own party’s administration. William F. Buckley used to regularly claim that John F. Kennedy’s political career might have never taken off had McCarthy not accepted a personal appeal from Joe Kennedy to stay out of Massachusetts in 1952 instead of campaigning for JFK’s Republican rival, Henry Cabot Lodge. So the McCarthy comparison, while powerful among liberals, isn’t necessarily magic on the Right or on the stump. Now back to Yeselson:

[I]t’s best to think of Cruz as the perfect expression of what Perry and Rubio were mere beta versions: the exemplification, brilliantly articulated, of the fringe pathologies trapped in the body of a major party that is today’s GOP. Cruz is the real deal. He is deeply grounded in his worldview, and skilled in his presentation of it. He’s the man that rightwing activists must wish had started his national political career just a few years earlier: Is there any doubt that Ted Cruz would have been a more daunting challenger for Mitt Romney than the charlatans and bozos Romney defeated for the 2012 nomination?

The question kind of answers itself. Cruz is everything Rick Santorum tried to look and sound like in 2012 when he put on his culture warpaint and professed himself as the Working Man’s friend while distracting everyone from his Senate record as a partisan hack and K Street bagman.

Cruz’s marketability is especially strong in Iowa, as we will probably see at tomorrow’s picnic. Unlike Marco Rubio, he has no immigration albatross around his neck. Unlike Rand Paul, he doesn’t have a family legacy to live down (i.e., the very bad feelings the Ron Paul Revolution inculcated among Republican activists with its abrasive 2012 state party take-over and its ineffective leadership of the GOP). And the contrast between the ever-consistent and very articulate Cruz and the other Texas conservative who may run in 2016, Rick Perry, is absolutely deadly to the governor, and an unavoidable topic of conversation on the campaign trail.

Sure, Cruz is a very junior senator who will be discounted as a parvenu or a flash-in-the-pan in many elite circles. He’s yet to show his toughness in adversity, if only because he’s yet to make any mistakes from the point of view of his movement-conservative audience. But right now he and Rand Paul—only slightly senior to Cruz—are the kind of people Republican activists from coast to coast are begging to appear at their fundraising events, and will be in massive demand next year as conservatives whip themselves into a frenzy to reduplicate their last turnout-driven midterm election performance.

Yeselson envisions the 2016 race coming down to a battle between Cruz and Chris Christie—the most politically effective representatives of, respectively, “constitutional conservatism” and the kind of “pragmatic” approach that deploys the old Nixonian formula of ideological flexibility and partisan savagery. If that’s the case, my money would be on Cruz, because the activists who stand athwart the nominating process in the early states tend to vote with their hearts rather than their heads, and want a counter-revolution as much as they want a president. The question that would hang over a Cruz candidacy might well be Jimmy Carter’s slogan from way back in 1976: “Why not the best?”

As Yeselson concludes:

Ted Cruz is everything that is dangerous and wrongheaded about the modern Republican Party — a politician whose cosmopolitan credentials are being used in the service of a radically anti-modernist, culturally and economically reactionary project. Yet that project is the animating vision of one of our two major parties. And nobody in America expresses that vision with more clarity, conviction, and power than Ted Cruz.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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