With each trip to an early primary state, potential 2016 Republican candidates are defining the issues and their own experience in ways that will bolster their presidential prospects. Pundits call this sort of activity “creating a narrative,” but whatever you call it, it can provide insight into the candidates’ self-image and what they think the primary electorate will want in a nominee.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), in an Iowa visit, sought to define five conservative victories: “Stopping the gun legislation that followed the Newtown shooting;” “stopping a bill reforming the International Monetary Fund that would have put more taxpayer money at risk and weaken the United States at the bank relative to the Russians;” a bill denying admission of an Iranian ambassador to the United States who was a designated terrorist; “the release of Miriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese Christian (married to an American citizen) sentenced to die for her faith;” and getting the Federal Aviation Administration to rescind the ban on flights to Ben Gurion airport. He added two victories-in-the-making: Ending what he calls “amnesty” and repealing Obamacare.
What is noteworthy about these (other than all featuring him) is that four of the five victories are on foreign policy. He clearly is identifying foreign policy prowess and robustness as a conservative victory. (He labels all victories against Obama and the GOP establishment, although the establishment did not disagree with him on most of these.) Plainly, he thinks that a prime rival for the affections of the GOP base, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is going to suffer in comparison to him.
His foreign policy emphasis reflects his assessment, a correct one in our estimation, that identification with a foreign policy of retrenchment akin to Obama’s foreign policy is a no-go with Republican primary voters. Perhaps he has spent enough time with Christian evangelicals to understand how critical U.S. leadership on foreign policy is to their hearts. (You’ll recall Paul once called some Christians “war mongers” for their views on the Middle East, an incendiary charge that was blasted by prominent pro-Zionist Christians.)
Oddly, Cruz chose to include among his victories opposition to Ukrainian aid with International Monetary Fund provisions. Actually, the aid bill passed the committee with IMF funding included; the House refusal to include IMF funding caused Reid to remove the IMF component. As we’ve explained, this position (Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, took the same position but ultimately voted for the aid bill with IMF funding included) was based on an incorrect understanding of the international aid components and unnecessarily delayed aid to Ukraine. But it was a bone to the far-right groups that think any international body is toxic. Cruz doesn’t want to concede the far-right/libertarian vote to Rand Paul. (His position in favor of tough sanctions against Russia and for export of liquefied natural gas will likely cover his bases with GOP hawks on the topic.)
When it gets to the victories-in-process, we again see Cruz trying to put himself on the same side as his potential core supporters and putting Paul on the outs. On immigration reform, which, again, was not a victory in stopping the administration from acting unilaterally (which it still could do) or in blocking the Senate immigration bill, he seems to be banking on using Paul’s on-again-off-again support for comprehensive immigration reform against him. Paul, no doubt, will fight back, claiming he is for border security first. Eventually, the issue will be joined between one candidate who never wants to give citizenship to illegals (mass deportation, I guess, is the alternative) and one who does, once the border is secure.
The final “in progress” item isn’t actually a point of differentiation; most establishment Republicans want to repeal Obamacare, too. However, Cruz must characterize his shut-down stunt as evidence of “true” anti-Obamacare sentiment and as a victory. This is going to be a tough sell on both fronts, even with primary voters. Most engaged Republicans concede the shut down was a political disaster and did not achieve its aim. (It also contradicts Cruz’s argument at the time, namely it was do-or-die for Obamacare, to hold Obamacare repeal as a victory still to be achieved.) Moreover, in defending the shut down, Cruz asks Republicans to ignore that Obamacare repeal was front and center before the shutdown and actually gained strength once it was over and voters could focus on the disastrous Obamacare roll-out.
Cruz and Paul both suffer from a deficiency that may matter to primary voters: Executive experience and seasoning. Like Obama, both are freshmen senators known for rhetoric and electrifying the base. Is there someone who can offer the red meat, the foreign policy credentials and the executive experience? You can see why Gov. Rick Perry is now the dark-horse favorite of many conservatives.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post failed to specify that the IMF provision was included in a version passed in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, not by the entire Senate. Cruz’s office claims it was still a victory for him since a final Ukraine aid bill that passed both chambers did not include the IMF provision. On that, however, the House “establishment” leaders claim credit. Before the Senate took up the bill, the House passed a version of Ukraine aid without the IMF provision. House leaders, not the House backbenchers or the Senate anti-IMF faction (which did not have votes to filibuster), were responsible for forcing Reid’s hand. In short, Cruz did wind up on the winning side, thanks to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).