If there is such a thing as being too conservative to be elected president of the United States, Ted Cruz is having none of it.
Announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination Monday at Liberty University, the first-term senator from Texas offered himself as the pure essence of conservatism and challenged the tea party and evangelical wings of the Republican Party to rise up behind one of their own and take control of the party and the country.
His candidacy is a test of a proposition, one that he has carried across the country for many months. He has argued that the party failed to win the White House not because it has become too conservative but because Republicans have nominated politicians who were not conservative enough, who could not carry the message of today’s conservatism with energy, optimism and authenticity.
Frustrated by the campaigns of Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008, many conservatives agree. Whether Cruz can become the vehicle to prove the merits of his argument is the challenge he now faces, both in the preliminary contest to become the favorite of the insurgent conservative wing of his party and then to show that he is capable of defeating a skeptical establishment for the nomination.
In his short time on the national stage, no politician has captivated grass-roots conservatives quite like Cruz. Elected to the Senate in 2012 over a weak establishment Republican, Cruz has become a star on the right, a politician who has shown almost perfect pitch before conservative audiences, with a message of smaller government, less regulation, a return to the Constitution, and the central role of faith and Christian values in governing.
Nor has any politician so irritated fellow Republican elected officials or the party establishment, challenging his leaders in the Senate, urging on conservative rebels in the House and helping to engineer the partial shutdown of the government in 2013. If there is a senator who has had chillier relations with his colleagues, it would be hard to name that person.
The two go hand in hand — appealing to grass-roots conservatives and taking on the establishment — and Cruz has skillfully cultivated his standing as both a conservative firebrand and a Washington outsider, as much a critic of what he sees as his own party’s unprincipled leadership as of the policies of President Obama and the Democrats.
Cruz’s announcement of candidacy officially launched the 2016 campaign, though it has obviously been underway for months, with cattle calls for candidates and multiple visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina by GOP contenders. Other candidates will soon follow him into the ring, Republicans as well as the Democrats’ leading contender, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But as the field of Republicans quickly fills out, Cruz will find the competition bracing. On the right, he will be elbowed most directly by people like Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas; Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania; Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana; and Ben Carson, the renowned neurosurgeon, among others.
All have a claim to the same part of the party that Cruz counts on as his base. But Cruz no doubt will see flaws in all of them and likely will argue that the others seeking the mantle of the grass-roots conservative base are lacking in some respect or another.
Huckabee and Santorum have claims on Christian conservatives, having both won the Iowa caucuses. But Huckabee’s fiscal record is suspect to many fiscal conservatives. Santorum’s blue-collar economic message could leave him vulnerable to conservative criticism that he is looking to Washington and government programs for solutions. Carson has no experience as a politician. Jindal has struggled to gain a real foothold, at least to date.
Beyond that, Cruz will find himself crowded by Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, who is enjoying a rise to prominence and has shown a capacity for crossover appeal, from both establishment types who like the idea of a governor with executive experience and tea party and social conservatives who like his message that no-quarter conservative governance can win the center in a general election. And if Cruz survives all that, he might then have to contend with Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and favorite of the moneyed wing of the establishment.
The establishment will go after him. It already has. He has few friends among his fellow senators, and the fact that he is trying to do what Obama did — run for president just a few years after being elected to the Senate — will be a mark against him in a party that long has criticized Obama for his lack of experience before entering the White House.
Cruz’s announcement speech, delivered to a student convocation that responded enthusiastically to his rhetoric, offered an intimate portrait of his personal family story. Just as Obama did when he announced his candidacy in 2007, Cruz told the story of America’s promise through the experiences of his parents and himself.
But he also offered an upbeat portrayal of what the country would be like if it were guided by the conservative principles he espouses. The speech was long on imagination of a better world grounded in constitutional principles. He imagined the repeal of Obamacare, the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service, the demise of Common Core standards.
Absent were the practical policies that would bring about those changes, as well as the promise of robust economic growth and opportunities he said would take place with a return to first principles. This was not the day for policy white papers, however. Those can come later.
What Cruz offered in his announcement — what his candidacy is about — is a robust call to arms to tea partiers, evangelicals and people feeling cut out by the party establishments of both parties. Invoking God and the Constitution throughout his speech, he said, “I believe in you. I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to reignite the promise of America.”
In his relatively brief time as a national politician, Cruz has shown himself to be brainy, driven and ambitious. What he has yet to show is the ability to take his outsider message, convert it from criticism to optimism and expand his appeal beyond the true believers. He has made the argument about what his party needs. Now he must try to prove that he is the messenger conservatives want in 2016.