In early January, The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol took a look at the expansive field of prospective Republican presidential prospects and called for three hearty cheers. Republicans, he noted, were the beneficiaries of an embarrassment of riches. With no fewer than 20 Republican figures either flirting with or exploring a presidential bid outright at that time, Kristol noted that the GOP would emerge an intellectually vibrant force from the presidential primary process. “The more the merrier,” he wrote. There was, however, one glaring omission from Kristol’s piece: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Kristol declined to denounce Paul’s likely presidential campaign. The junior senator from Kentucky was simply left off his list of likely 2016 candidates, and that omission was never addressed. Kristol’s earlier declarations that Paul’s approach to foreign affairs is both “neo-isolationist” and “dangerous” indicates that he does not believe the libertarian senator brings more to the 2016 table than he subtracts.
While most Republican voters have determined that Paul’s approach to foreign challenges, which more often favor retrenchment and disengagement over interventionism, has been tried and has failed, Republican voters are less inclined to render a judgment on Paul’s libertarian domestic initiatives. Some would contend that Paul’s advocacy on domestic policy matters – ranging from the de-escalation of the War on Drugs, to the reformation of the American criminal justice system, to ending the disenfranchisement of felons who pay their debt to society – would revolutionize the Republican Party platform if adopted. Moreover, Paul’s eagerness to address issues of racial disparity in the American criminal justice system could blunt the baseless but resonant charge that the GOP is racially suspect.
Rand Paul’s stubborn insistence on retrenchment even as the international threat environment grows ever more perilous will likely cost him the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. His presence in the race will, however, be a boon to his party. Paul will command the support of a committed band of libertarian conservatives, and the ultimate 2016 nominee would be smart to adapt his or her positions in order to appeal to that demographic. Ultimately, Paul’s presence in the race will force the party’s nominee to be slightly friendlier toward limited government libertarian domestic initiatives while still soundly rejecting that wing’s foreign policy prescriptions.
Similarly, the Beltway-based establishmentarians in the Republican Party are no doubt rolling their eyes over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s decision to launch a presidential campaign. He has occupied federal office for just 26 months, and his record in the U.S. Senate has been an inauspicious one.
Cruz alienated the GOP’s pragmatists on a series of occasions. When he cajoled his conservative supporters in the House to embrace a strategy that resulted in the 2013 government shutdown, Cruz lost the support of The Wall Street Journal editorial board and those conservatives this institution represents. Similarly, Cruz has made few friends among those in the U.S. Senate whose job it is to pass legislation. “He’ll likely be a Jesse Helms, one of the lone conservative Senators who says outspoken and crazy things,” a former GOP Senate leadership aide told Time Magazine last year. “He’ll largely be marginalized.”
Their frustration is understandable. “In February 2014, Cruz filibustered a bill to raise the debt ceiling, prompting McConnell and his fellow Texas Sen. John Cornyn, along with other Republicans, to advance the measure because they feared its failure would prompt a government default on its obligations,” Politico reported in February. “And in December, Cruz — along with his ally, Utah Sen. Mike Lee — effectively forced the Senate to return to Washington for a rare Saturday session in order to lodge a protest over Obama’s immigration policies.”
“The tactic, GOP senators publicly complained, strengthened the Democrats’ hands,” the report continued. “Cruz later apologized to his colleagues for abruptly interrupting their weekend plans, though he showed little remorse for mounting the immigration fight.”
No longer a member of a vocal minority in the Senate, Cruz began to modify his approach to governance after the swearing-in of the new Congress in 2015. The Texas senator could have easily objected to a Senate bill that funded the Department of Homeland Security without de-funding the president’s executive actions on immigration, but he declined the opportunity. When it came time to consider a “clean” funding bill, Cruz did not join Sens. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) in voting against a measure to proceed with the DHS bill that essentially signaled the GOP’s capitulation in the fight over DAPA implementation. Many saw this apparent moderation by the Texas senator as a signal that he was serious about appealing to a broader Republican electorate in the presidential primaries.
Cruz’s approach to legislating has been a thorn in the side of Republican lawmakers since he took his seat in the Senate. The way in which he waged fights over the debt ceiling, the Affordable Care Act, and Obama’s immigration actions have alienated the GOP’s high-dollar donor class. While no other Republican figure commands the influence Cruz does within the conservative base, the millions of dollars that he will need to raise in order to mount a successful presidential campaign will not come from grassroots GOP voters alone. Between his willingness to compel his colleagues to fight losing battles and his struggles on the fundraising front, Cruz is highly unlikely to be the GOP’s 2016 nominee.
Like Paul, however, Cruz’s entry into the race will be good for the Republican figure who ultimately secures the delegates required to accept the party’s nomination in Cleveland. Cruz’s opposition to an unfair immigration reform plan that hurts the employment prospects of unskilled American laborers will force the party to the right on the issue of immigration. With Hispanics like Cruz or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) making the case for the enforcement of existing immigration law, the Democratic Party will struggle to claim that this position is an outgrowth of the GOP’s antipathy toward Latinos. Cruz’s demand that the department of energy, education, and the IRS be abolished will compel the Republican commentary class to stop rolling their eyes and take the plan seriously if only because millions of GOP voters will do the same.
Some conservatives imagine that the rest of the GOP field will be tested by just how much they can resist being pulled to the right by Cruz’s issue advocacy. It’s possible that the Texas senator or others might compel the ultimate nominee to adopt “severely conservative” positions that will make it harder for the GOP nominee to win over the majority of voters in November of next year. Cruz’s presence in the race will certainly make the nominee a more conservative candidate. While this may present challenges for the GOP during the general election campaign, it will also force the party’s nominee to govern more conservatively if elected. Without an incumbent Democratic president on the ballot, the Republican Party is in a better position to take a risk on a more conservative candidate in 2016 than they were in 2012.
Cruz is unlikely to mend the Republican Party’s bitter divides, but he will be a powerful voice for conservatives on the debate stage in 2016. He probably won’t be the nominee, but he will make the eventual nominee more conservative. In that mission, Ted Cruz will perform a valuable service for the party in its effort to retake the White House.