The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sen. Ted Cruz trying to stand out in a crowded 2016 field

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is doing everything one would expect a presidential contender to be doing 18 months before the first presidential primary. He recently traveled to the Middle East and Europe. He went to the Texas GOP convention this weekend, where he rocked the house and, The Post reported, “seemed to be everywhere, speaking to two women’s groups, at an anti-gay-marriage event, to the socially conservative Eagle ­Forum and in several sessions with reporters.” He’s been doing a lot of traveling to early presidential primary states.

If he seems to have missed the crest of the tea party’s allure, his timing is nevertheless impeccable in another respect. He need not make a choice in 2016 between a Senate reelection and presidential run as fellow Republicans Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) may need to do. Cruz has the luxury of not facing reelection until 2018. Moreover, his foreign policy views seem perfectly calibrated to respond to President Obama’s disastrous foreign policy, which conservatives more uniformly than at any time in his presidency see as foolish, irresponsible and weak. When he slams the Obama/Hillary Clinton/John Kerry foreign policy, accusing them of failing to stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, lacking a realistic assessment of Iran and turning a blind eye to the plight of repressed people, Cruz is implicitly attacking Sen. Rand Paul, who in some respects falls to Obama and Hillary Clinton’s left.

Cruz’s foreign policy messaging started months ago with a series of foreign policy speeches and, more recently, with foreign policy proposals (barring an Iranian terrorist from being allowed in as a United Nations representative for his country, pushing for Iran sanctions, revealing an anti-Putin energy plan). At the Texas GOP convention this weekend, Cruz kept up the drumbeat, telling the crowd that he’s the real deal on a Reagan foreign policy approach:

Cruz also invoked Reagan in describing his own approach to foreign policy, saying that he supports the late president’s philosophy of peace through strength.
“There was a time when we had another president, like President Obama, we had Jimmy Carter,” he said to boos. ” And all of us remember how quickly things can change.”
The senator, who at times has been a pariah within his own party in Washington and faced tough headlines over his role in the government shutdown last fall, said of Reagan, as he praised him for ending the Cold War: “All of the intelligentsia, all of the cognoscenti, they tittered at such uneducated, Philistine views. He didn’t have the sophistication, he didn’t have the nuance, he didn’t understand detente — which I’m pretty sure is French for surrender.”

Cruz’s overall strategy seems to be to corner the right-wing market in part by wooing Rand Paul supporters. Cruz at the convention went out of his way to compliment Paul as the latest in a long list of pro-freedom Texans and also sidestep direct clashes with the Kentucky junior senator. (Cruz opposed, for example, the judicial confirmation of the author of the drone memo but didn’t do so on the grounds, as Paul did, that droning American jihadists overseas is unconstitutional.) Already a darling of Christian conservatives, Cruz can offer himself as the “true” conservative in contrast to the libertarian Paul and his GOP opponents, whom he can bash for lack of ideological purity. Cruz is going to be to the right of Paul on immigration (Paul at least in theory favors something other than a policy built on deportation) and potentially on issues such as drugs and gay marriage where Rand Paul is trying to make a play to libertarian young people.

Lacking the support of big donors whom he frightened with the shutdown and moderate Republicans more generally, Cruz will be hard-pressed to win the nomination. In a crowded field, his best chance is to win a couple of early races, chase the most conservative candidates from the field and try to set up a one-on-one challenge with the moderate Republicans’ choice. It’s a remote possibility, but that may not matter. In a real sense, the 2016 presidential race is a no-lose proposition for him. Even if he doesn’t win, he may well outshine his chief rival for the affection of the hard-core conservative base, thereby leaving him as the titular head of the right-wing base even if he doesn’t capture the nomination. If Paul and/or Rubio give up their Senate seats or lose in 2016, Cruz will have the Senate to himself as a platform for the far right. And Cruz is a young man, with a career ahead of him either in the Senate, in the grass-roots or in the mode of Newt Gingrich as a conservative media figure.

Cruz demonstrates both the reach and the limitations of the far right. There is a faction of the GOP that will passionately follow him. His ability to articulate a robust foreign policy is critical to the party’s ability to articulate an effective national security position. But his political stunts (the shutdown), penchant for buzzword politics (he tends to carry on about getting rid of Common Core without acknowledging that this is entirely a state-directed education policy) and adamantly anti-federal government nostrums curtail his appeal in the party, let alone in the general electorate. He nevertheless remains one of the smartest and most entertaining pols around — someone sure to make an already unpredictable 2016 presidential race even wilder.