Senator Ted Cruz just gave a major foreign-policy speech at the Heritage Foundation critiquing the disastrous nature of what he labeled as the “Obama-Clinton” approach to the subject. His desire to lay out his foreign-policy views in detail at such a venue as well as his focus on Clinton was a clear indication of something that is not exactly a secret: he’s planning on running for president in 2016. Members of his party’s establishment, which generally despises him as much as his fellow senators and the liberal media, do not take Cruz’s ambition too seriously. But as much as it seems unlikely that he will be taking the presidential oath at the Capitol in January 2017, that establishment should be a lot more afraid of Cruz than they seem to be. Anyone who thinks he will not be a formidable primary contender is paying more attention to the media caricature of Cruz than the facts.
Let’s start by conceding that Cruz’s well-earned image as a Senate bomb-thrower and his truculent public personality makes him a poor bet as a general-election candidate. Being a true believer is an asset in a primary but his uncompromising style won’t win many independent or crossover voters. Just as important, Cruz not only sounds ornery much of the time, he generally looks it too–and in the television era it’s far from clear that Americans will ever again elect someone who doesn’t strike them as being nice or personable. But let’s put those issues aside for a moment and consider Cruz’s chances of winning the Republican nomination in a context in which liberal media bias as well as the imperative of winning the center won’t be as decisive as they would be in a general election.
It should be understood that while many in the media and among the partisans of the so-called moderates in the putative GOP presidential field think Cruz is just another version of past
Republican candidates that were more gadflies than serious contenders, he is nothing of the sort. Cruz is no Michele Bachmann, a candidate who quickly imploded because of her penchant for embracing crackpot causes (like her opposition to a vaccine against cervical cancer) after enjoying a couple of months in the summer of 2011 during which it seemed as if she might get as far as Rick Santorum eventually did during the 2012 primaries. Cruz is good at playing up the down-home charm, a brilliant debater (a former college champion), and a savvy political tactician with a strong command of the issues and policy options on both domestic and foreign policy. 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.
Cruz’s ability to rouse the Tea Party base should also not be underestimated. While that constituency has been widely derided in the last couple of years as the GOP establishment managed to fend off challenges to many incumbents from Tea Party types, the grassroots conservatives have not disappeared and will turn out to support someone who can inspire passion. Cruz can do that for the exact same reasons that he appalls the establishment. The Texan can approach every key conservative issue, whether it is ObamaCare or immigration, with a laser-like precision that more easygoing or moderate candidates can’t match.
Cruz won’t win votes from those who don’t like Washington dysfunction. Republican governors are likely to win those votes. But having never given an inch or compromised on anything during his first two years in the Senate, neither will it be possible to accuse him of selling his soul to get ahead as is the usual rap on House or Senate veterans.
As for being able to organize a serious campaign, Cruz will be no latecomer to the party. He’s been working toward this goal for some time and it’s not likely that he will be caught short on organization. It remains to be seen whether the Tea Party faithful can give him enough money to fight to the end in the absence of him becoming the cause of a major donor the way Sheldon Adelson bankrolled Gingrich or Foster Friess subsidized Santorum. But Cruz is not the sort to be outworked so those who think he can’t raise enough cash are probably making a mistake.
Will that be enough to help him fend off a large number of other conservatives vying for the same voters? We don’t know, but the way he parachuted into Washington in January 2013 and quickly became the darling of the right indicates that he must be considered a serious threat to edge out others before they even get started. More to the point, Cruz is probably ideally positioned to win early primary and caucus states and then rake in the cash that will follow those victories before he tries to best the other first-tier candidates in the contests that follow. At worst, barring a mishap, I think he should be slotted in as likely to be part of a large field’s first tier.
Is he a lock to be able to carry out that scenario? Not necessarily. There will also not be as many debates in 2016 as there were in 2012, meaning that he won’t have as many opportunities to display his bulldog style or to eviscerate opponents in public. And the later primary schedule that year will make it easier for establishment types to wait before joining the race.
But the point here is that while Cruz may be considered an outlier in the Senate chamber, he’s likely to play better on the hustings in Iowa and other early states than establishment types think. Cruz may shoot himself in the foot in the next year and find others supplanting him among Tea Partiers and the rest of the party. But any assumptions on the part of the establishment that he will crash and burn is a huge mistake. Cruz may not be president but his path to the Republican nomination is no pipe dream.
Jonathan S. Tobin is a senior online editor at Commentary magazine. This piece first appeared on Commentary’s web site, on Dec. 12.