Is Ted Cruz good for conservatives? Or is it the other way around?
The answer matters a lot, because it's not impossible that this guy could be the next GOP presidential nominee. A close adviser to Texas' junior senator told National Journal that there is a 90 percent chance the Tea Party star will run for president in 2016. "And honestly, 90 is lowballing it." Cruz denies that he has made plans past the midterms. But boy, he sure does look like a man preparing for a run. He goes to Iowa and makes foreign-policy heavy speeches. He makes trips to New Hampshire to stump for GOP candidates there. And so on.
Cruz was wildly popular at last week's Values Voters summit. Of all the Tea Party senators, he has the most polished presence on the hustings. He has the best nose for the grassroots. He booms that a Republican president will be "repealing every word" of ObamaCare in 2017.
But from where I sit, Cruz looks like another Sarah Palin. He is gifted at polarizing a debate in a way that gratifies the base of the party. But then what? Ted Cruz will "stand for" conservative policy goals, but standing for them is very different from realizing them.
Compare Cruz's persona and rhetoric to his Tea Party peers, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul. Each of these men have devoted themselves to conservative ideas, but they also seem to have absorbed political lessons from the last two decades. It has inspired in them a creativity in policy thinking that also seeks to enlarge the Republican tent. Rubio enfolds the story of immigration and assimilation into a larger conservative narrative about American greatness; it's an effort that could make republicanism seem less hostile to voters from the last great wave of immigration.
Rand Paul has framed libertarian policies meant to appeal to black and other urban voting blocs. Paul has attracted younger voters with his foreign policy vision, his pro-digital privacy stances, and his filibuster against unlimited drone warfare.
Finally, Mike Lee, probably the least likely in this group to run for president, has gone deep in the weeds on tax policy, in an effort to give some material benefit to the middle- and working-class families who ought to be the backbone of a conservative voting majority.
Now, no politician should be ashamed of his willingness to be disagreeable in the name of a disagreement. Ted Cruz opposed the nomination of Chuck Hagel to secretary of Defense for the simple reason that he disagreed with Hagel's view of foreign policy and defense. Fair game, I say.
But for all his advertised "commitment" to the conservative cause, Cruz's approach seems like a xerox of a fax from the 1980s, on which he has drawn some cursory scribblings. We have been told over and over how smart and intellectual Ted Cruz is, by professors like Harvard's Alan Dershowitz and Princeton's Robert George. But where is the evidence of fresh thinking, of applying conservative principles to existing problems?
Take health care. Cruz has put a ton of his energy into defeating ObamaCare. He quixotically shut down the government over this issue last fall. But for all the great intellectual firepower said to reside in Cruz, his policy ideas on health care amount to this: raising the eligibility age for Medicare, tax credits, and a promise to "throw my body in front of a train" to stop ObamaCare. Good luck with that.
Do you like Cruz? Then I have a disclaimer. I have idiosyncratic views on presidential candidates. I supported Ron Paul in 2008, and was sympathetic to Jon Huntsman in 2012. Other than the Huntsman thing, I'm a black-banners reactionary. Cruz had never made much of an impression on me, until he trolled a conference of Christians raising awareness of persecution in the Middle East. Perhaps Cruz is simply being wise and he is simply advertising his loyalties now in a run-up to the primary. Once he captures a base of voters he'll unveil creative, vote-attracting, and constructive policies. But he hasn't yet. And I just don't believe he will.
If you're a Cruz fan, ask yourself: Can you imagine a voting bloc of "Cruz Democrats?" Isn't Ted Cruz's unique appeal precisely that such a bloc is unimaginable? If that's the case, he's better suited as a firebrand in the upper-chamber than as your candidate for president.