Byron York asked that question yesterday after hearing Iowa conservatives rave about Ted Cruz. Is Cruzmania chiefly a function of Cruz’s awesomeness, he wonders, or at least partly a function of righties starting to scrutinize the 2016 crop more closely and feeling the need for an alternative?
Some of the complaints: Sen. Marco Rubio has hurt himself by taking the lead on comprehensive immigration reform. Rep. Paul Ryan was on the last losing ticket and might also anger the base on immigration. Gov. Bobby Jindal fails to ignite Republican passions. Sen. Rand Paul can be divisive. Gov. Chris Christie is too willing to work with Democrats (especially the one in the White House). Rick Santorum doesn’t have broad enough appeal. Former Gov. Jeb Bush carries his family’s baggage.
None are crippling weaknesses, and any one of these potential candidates might look much different a year from now. But the fact is, Republicans are in a period of flaw-finding at the moment, and they are finding flaws in most of the politicians who will make up their 2016 field.
And then along comes Ted Cruz. Straight-down-the-line conservative, smart as hell, anti-establishment, ready for a fight, professing a principles-based approach to politics — Cruz says what many Iowa conservative activists want to hear. And in the last few days they have heard it for the first time from a man who doesn’t have a very long record to complicate things. On top of that, Cruz is great with a crowd, big or small: he is a captivating speaker who leaves audiences fired up about themselves and their cause — and about Ted Cruz…
“I mostly agree,” added longtime social conservative Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader. “The Cruz phenomenon is unlike anything I’ve witnessed. It’s very real and surreal at the same time.” Vander Plaats said his group’s big event in August will be a further test of Cruz’s appeal. “If he continues down this impressive path, he will likely squeeze many others who are thinking about running.”
“Dissatisfied” seems like the wrong word when, by universal agreement, we’re headed for a much stronger field in 2016 than we had last year. Ask yourself: How many of the likely GOP candidates next cycle would conservatives have preferred to Romney as nominee? Go down the line — Rubio, Cruz, Jindal, Ryan, Scott Walker, on and on. The only two who are even debatable, I think, are Christie and maybe Rand Paul. The field as a whole is satisfying. The question is whether it’s not as satisfying as righties had hoped.
The affection for Cruz will endure, I think, just because there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. He knows who his base is and he knows what they want. He can be the guy who meets 100 percent of grassroots conservatives’ criteria instead of only 80-90 percent like the rest, provided he doesn’t do something before 2016 as anathema to the tea party as Rubio did on amnesty. If he remains dependably tea-party-ish on all major issues (he can be bipartisan on less major ones to build a resume for the general), he’ll have a huge chunk of the base with him. The big loser in that case would, I assume, be Rand Paul, who’s probably the next closest thing to a pure tea-party candidate in the field. I think there’s a fair number of mainstream conservatives who like Paul but are leery of him on foreign policy and electability grounds, yet will lay their misgivings aside and vote for him if there isn’t another tea-party type in the field without those liabilities. Cruz is that guy.
If righties rally around Cruz, though, Beltway Republicans will be forced to rally around an establishment choice. They can’t afford to let the centrist vote split multiple ways; that would enable Cruz to win primaries with 30-40 percent of the vote. The two likeliest guys to be crowned establishment champ are, I think, Rubio and Scott Walker, just because they’re best positioned to pull some tea-party votes away from Cruz, not only on policy grounds but on electability grounds. Would righties be satisfied with a Scott Walker versus Ted Cruz battle for the nomination in 2016? (I won’t offer Rubio versus Cruz just because so many grassroots conservatives blanch at Rubio’s name right now.) I could live with that.