Fellow presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) trenchantly observed: “Ted has chosen to make this really personal and chosen to call people dishonest in leadership and call them names, which really goes against the decorum and also against the rules of the Senate, and as a consequence, he can’t get anything done legislatively. He is pretty much done for and stifled and it’s really because of personal relationships, or lack of personal relationships, and it is a problem.”
In national polling for the GOP presidential nomination, Cruz draws 6.2 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, putting him in sixth place. Although proud of his college debating skills, he has not done particularly well in the presidential debates. Carly Fiorina and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have used the widely viewed events as a springboard to increase their polling numbers; Cruz’s support is flat. (He peaked in May at 10.5 percent and has been in single digits ever since.)
How did the most ambitious man in the Senate (quite an accomplishment in a body in which 100 men and women see themselves as president) wind up as an irrelevant figure in the Senate and a second- or third-tier contender in the presidential race? Multiple factors are at play:
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1. He adopted a hostile, angry persona but with no signature issue. Unlike Rubio, who became a foreign policy maven, or Paul, who championed libertarian (albeit extreme) stances on national security, Cruz never bothered to do the hard work of mastering policy, crafting legislation and cajoling colleagues. His legislation tends to be symbolic, empty measures that pass without effort.
2. He undercut himself with exaggerated attacks and unsupported accusations (e.g. questioning whether defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel received speaking monies from North Korea, lecturing Sen. Dianne Feinstein).
3. He made no political friends but plenty of enemies. It is one thing to challenge the establishment, but quite another to fail to cultivate allies who will support your maneuvers and praise your efforts. He has managed to alienate 98 colleagues. Only Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) seems willing to stick with him these days. Paul is right: In a legislative body, you cannot be successful by annoying everyone else.
4. He has been ideologically erratic. He, for example, likes to pose as a hawk, but opposed a military strike on Syria, won’t back a more robust contingent of U.S. forces to fight the Islamic State, tried to hobble the National Security Agency and enraged the military by joining with liberal Democrats in attempting to take responsibility for sexual harassment claims away from line commanders.
5. His exaggerated, artificial speaking style thrills his fans but comes across to many as condescending or self-reverential. Charles Cooke aptly described him: “Striking a pose that lands somewhere between the oleaginousness of a Joel Osteen and the self-assuredness of a midwestern vacuum-cleaner salesman, Cruz delivers his speeches as might a mass-market motivational speaker in an Atlantic City Convention Center.”
Fawning over Donald Trump and waiting for him to explode do not, for now, seem to be working. Voters appear to prefer the real Trump or a not-Trump candidate rather than a Trump-lite candidate. It is certainly possible, however, in a topsy-turvy presidential race that Cruz becomes a first-tier challenger. One should not underestimate his ability, as is often the case in Iowa, to motivate a small but determined band of followers who deliver results in the caucuses. Likewise, if Newt Gingrich could win South Carolina attacking the media, Cruz certainly has a chance there. That said, he is neither presenting himself as a constructive mainstream candidate or as a true outsider. (Sporting two Ivy League degrees and spending most of his career in the Senate, as the Texas solicitor general and in mid-level slots in the Bush administration hardly make him a man of the people.) That leaves him with 6 percent of voters.
Granted, all this assumes that Cruz’s intention was to become a force to be reckoned with in the Senate or the GOP presidential nominee. If, however, his goal was purely ego-driven — to gain the admiration of a small clique of far-right conservatives, raise gobs of money and get on TV regularly — he has been wildly successful. And yet, somehow, I sense he had bigger things in mind.