What Makes Ted Cruz Run?

If by his sudden leap into a formal presidential candidacy Sen. Ted Cruz hoped to be the center of attention among the chattering classes for a while, he succeeded. By my count there are eight items on the junior Senator from Texas currently up on the National Review site. There are five at the Federalist site. I’d say the general tone of conservative pieces on Cruz is defensive more than adulatory: he may be an SOB, but he’s their SOB.

Outside the conservative bubble, most commentary on the Cruz announcement was largely derisive, not so much because of the content of his “Imagine” speech at Liberty University, but because his candidacy makes little sense. At TNR Danny Vinik systematically scorns Cruz’ qualifications to serve as president, and his lack of experience is by no means the biggest problem:

[A]bove all, one particular position should disqualify Cruz—or anyone else who holds it—from the presidency: using the debt ceiling as a hostage device. Breaching the debt ceiling would be disastrous. It’s hard to forecast exactly what would happen, but we can somewhat forecast day one after default. The government would have to prioritize its payments. Do you withhold food stamps from low-income Americans? Delay Social Security checks? Maybe we should stop payments on infrastructure projects. Those missed payments would harm millions of Americans and cause mass disruptions around the country as cash flow problems cause companies to become insolvent. Over the long term, it would permanently raise our borrowing costs, making our interest payments more expensive. In short, it would be self-inflicted economic Armageddon. Cruz considers his willingness to risk that catastrophe a selling point, touting his role in opposing the debt ceiling hikes on his website.

At FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten is similarly categorical in dismissing Cruz’s chances of actually winning the presidential nomination. Cruz has severely alienated nearly all the Republican elites who serve as gatekeepers of the nomination, and is well to the right of Michele Bachmann, notes Enten.

I did my weekly TPMCafe column on Cruz, and the editor gave it a headline that could well sum up the general reaction to his presidential announcement: “What Is Ted Cruz Thinking?” Here’s what I concluded:

I have no way of peering into Cruz’s soul, and thus tend to take him at his word that he is indeed on a rendezvous with destiny, not because of his ethnicity but because he believes the movement conservatism that lifted him to an unlikely Senate primary victory in 2012 is now ready to consummate its conquest of the Republican Party with the first true “no compromise” nominee since at least Ronald Reagan, and perhaps Barry Goldwater.

From that perspective, Cruz’s handicaps could, if exploited properly, become advantages. His lack of Washington experience and accomplishments and the disdain of elites are badges of honor and authenticity. His lack of intraparty popularity will be dispelled once a breakthrough victory in Iowa magnifies his prophetic voice and exposes other alleged “true conservative” candidates as pretenders, if not sellouts. His electoral “base” is not Texas but the conservative “base” everywhere. His ethnicity will be appealing to white conservatives furious at allegations of racism and nativism, and will eventually inspire the more conservative Hispanics. And his imperious personality could eventually seem appropriate to the enormous challenge he is taking on.

I go on to note Cruz seems to have internalized the old conservative belief that “electability” arguments are central to a conspiracy to nominate moderate losers. But ultimately, his goal may not be what we all assume:

Cruz may be running not so much for president as for the leadership of the conservative movement, which in turn would makes him a viable presidential candidate now and for the five or six cycles beyond 2016 when he’ll still be of an appropriate age to run for president. For a politician of Cruz’s temperament and outsized goals and ambitions, that sure beats the hell out of working his way up the Senate seniority ladder.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.