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August 12, 2013 9:43 AM Sunny, Optimistic Rage

By Ed Kilgore

After Ted Cruz’ first appearance in Iowa last month, I was intrigued by a reference to him as a potential GOP “unity candidate” by Craig Robinson, the influential and not notably extremist founder and editor of The Iowa Republican. I mean, really, could a junior pol who spends a big chunk of his time insulting and bullying other Republicans “unify” the GOP?

But after Cruz’ second visit this weekend, Robinson’s TIR colleague Kevin Hall caught his act and used the “U” word again:

The Republican Party is desperately in need of a leader who can bring the party together and excite the base. Early signs indicate that Texas Senator Ted Cruz might be that man.
There was a palpable excitement inside Stephens Auditorium in Ames before Cruz hit the stage.
“That was the first political speech to get me excited in a very long time,” said Dane Nealson, the chair of the Story County GOP who worked on the presidential campaigns for Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry. “He’s the best shot I’ve seen so far to unite the factions.”
The Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats, who endorsed Rick Santorum in the 2012 Iowa Caucus, gave a decidedly more enthusiastic introduction for Senator Cruz than he did for Santorum.
“Cruz is a phenomenon that I haven’t seen the like of in a long time, probably ever,” Vander Plaats told TheIowaRepublican.com.
The Texas senator did not disappoint. He scored quickly with a joke about the origin of the word “politics”, noting that “poli” means many, and “tics” means blood sucking parasites. From there, the first term senator from Texas served enough conservative red meat to feed the 1,000 Iowa conservatives in attendance, and leave them asking for seconds.
Much of Ted Cruz’ allure is his willingness to stand up for conservative principles. He is leading a charge in the U.S. senate to defund Obamacare. When he mentioned that during his speech, Cruz received an extended standing ovation. The same thing happened when he said we should abolish the IRS. These are not new lines that are exclusive to Ted Cruz. The difference is, when he says them, you actually believe he will fight for those stances….
Popular with libertarians, social conservatives and making waves with mainstream Republicans, Ted Cruz is exciting Iowa Caucus goers in ways that few candidates ever have. Although he’s a first-term U.S. senator, Cruz’ accomplishments as solicitor general of Texas adds some hefty and impressive experience to his resume….
We are two and a half years away from the 2016 Iowa Caucuses, but we already have a frontrunner in the race. His name is Ted Cruz.

Wow. But in case you wonder if there’s some unexplained bias for Cruz at TIR, Hall wasn’t the only observer to see Cruz levitate himself from the platform in Ames. Here’s The Economist’s American columnist Lexington, who clearly considers the Texan a demagogic joke but came away extremely impressed nonetheless:

The Ted Cruz pitch is hard to summarise, as it is assembled from a set of seeming contradictions. Faced with arguments about whether to stress economics or social issues, he focused on an economic message, but only after swiftly establishing his social-conservative credentials with a series of coded hints and nods to his unyieldingly pure positions against abortion or in favour of gun rights.
[A]t such an event, tensions and divisions about political strategy and messaging could be clearly heard. Speakers could not seem to decide whether they were fired up because conservatives are a besieged minority in a country already heading for Hell, or livid because deep down America is a mostly conservative nation, which has merely been tricked by President Barack Obama and the forces of godless leftism.
In the eternal Republican dispute between sunny Reaganite optimism and dark, pessimistic rage [Cruz] offered a hybrid: sunny, optimistic rage, suffused with a clever blend of self-promoting pandering to the grassroots. Yes, America is being betrayed by a cowardly elite that includes many Republicans as well as Democrats in Washington, Mr Cruz essentially told the crowd. But America can still be pulled back from the brink and returned to its status as a shining city on the hill, thanks to the extraordinary power of grassroots citizen demands for change… as long as those grassroots demands for change are being channelled by someone with the guts of Ted Cruz, a new boy in town.

Now it may just be that talk about Cruz as a uniter of “libertarians and social conservatives” just reflects the realization that the last two Republican presidential nominees won because of divided right-wing opposition. I’d be shocked if “movement conservatives” of varying hues didn’t spend some serious time this cycle trying to agree on a candidate. And perhaps in Iowa the excitement about Cruz reflects widespread activist and elected official hatred—this is not too strong a word—of a state party apparatus controlled by remnants of the Ron Paul Revolution, leading to a desire to find a candidate who can poach seriously on Rand Paul’s following without touching off a civil war.

But Lexington may be on to something deeper than factional politics, and more enduring that the ephemeral attraction of a good stump speaker: Cruz as someone who can reconcile the intense emotional war in the hearts of many, many conservatives between cultural despair and political triumphalism. That’s a pretty valuable talent in the wake of Barack Obama’s second presidential victory, a traumatizing event in the lives of many of those feeling the healing touch of Ted Cruz’ oratory.

UPDATE: Dave Weigel was in Iowa this weekend, and reinforces the impression that conservatives there are obsessed with regrets over their failure to unite early around a candidate in ‘12.

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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