A number of factors contribute to Cruz’s underutilization. Most damaging, he is a one-man billboard for the worst episode for Republicans in the Obama years — the government shutdown. At a time Republicans have a solid argument that it is the Democrats who are obstructionist and overly partisan, Cruz is, to put it mildly, off-message.
But, you say, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) supported the shutdown, too, and he is widely utilized in competitive races outside of GOP strongholds. True, but the shutdown was a single episode, rather out of character, in a sea of constructive legislative proposals. Rubio’s genial outlook, interest in reform and coherent foreign policy now define him. With Cruz, by contrast, all one sees is perpetual confrontation — with the White House, fellow Republicans, audiences, the media, purveyors of “amnesty,” the Supreme Court and the “establishment.” His shtick made him a hero to the tea party, but that is a sliver of the electorate. He is toxic to the rest.
He is neither fish nor fowl these days on national security. He has been dogged on Russia and Iran but can’t bring himself to champion a robust war plan for defeating the Islamic State. (He and Obama seem to be the only ones in Washington who think airpower can defeat the jihadists.) Cruz won’t even come out for a no-brainer for hawks — a plan to increase defense spending.
The problem with being a one-man band and advertising yourself as the purest of the pure conservatives is that a whole lot of people don’t want you around. As a human lightning rod, Cruz gets himself on TV a lot but receives few invitations into competitive Senate races.
If he intended to remain in the Senate, it is unlikely that Cruz would need to change much of anything. Unless Texas Democrats find the next Lloyd Bentsen — a conservative and a statesman with searing wit — he probably has the job for as long as he wants it. But Cruz wants so much more and wants it fast. He has had his eye on the White House since he was elected (maybe since birth). How does he keep his brand while broadening his appeal?
It is not advisable or possible to undergo an overnight conversion or a personality transplant without appearing phony and risking your own base of support. But Cruz could certainly drop his propensity to attack opponents’ character and motives (doctors with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not only wrong, in his eyes, but also pawns of the president). More important, he could figure out what he is for, not simply what he is against — and begin to offer some constructive proposals with wider appeal. What’s his tax plan? His pro-growth agenda? Other than cutting, repealing and blocking, what does he want to do?
In place of sanctimony, he could use some self-deprecating humor. In lieu of antagonizing colleagues, he certainly could be more gracious toward both Democrats and Republicans.
There are two caveats to all this. First, maybe all Cruz wants to do is be a gadfly, have his face on TV and be adored by a slim faction of the party. If so, he can keep on doing what he is doing. He is hugely successful if that’s his end. And second, over time people do forget. Impressions can change if a new, convincing and sincere portrait emerges over a stretch of time. Gov. Rick Perry (R) a case study. That, however, requires willingness to change, humility and time. I’m not sure Cruz has any of these things. If not for his outsize ego and exaggerated sense of his own appeal, he might recognize it’s an inopportune moment for a freshman senator and ideologue with virtually no executive experience to run as Obama’s replacement. But then, if not for these character traits, he wouldn’t be in this fix to begin with.
All signs point to a Cruz presidential run and a continuation of his attack-dog persona. He may be underestimating the potential for humiliation and the damage that a loss (especially a bad one) will have on his quest for conservative fame. Even Sarah Palin understood that — and chose to extend her shelf life (just a bit) by staying out of a presidential race in which she would have been required to face off against critics and accept the verdict of voters.