It's hard to believe that three years ago nobody knew who Ted Cruz was, or that during his 2012 campaign to become a senator in Texas, he was accused of supporting "amnesty" and attacked by Laura Ingraham for his stance on China.
Today, Ted Cruz is not only something of a household name, but he's considered one of the most conservative Republican lawmakers in the nation.
In modern politics, freshness is a virtue, and fortunes can change overnight.
Lots of people think Ted Cruz is a phony. Others are just as sure that he's among the most genuine politicians in America. He's not all that different from President Obama that way.
Now, nobody expects liberals to like Cruz. But even among conservatives, the verdict on Cruz is still out. The people who think he's an unctuous charlatan won't be impressed by any speech he gives, or anything he does. And the people who think he's the second coming of Ronald Reagan will see the good in his every move.
But let's try to strip away our prejudices and be objective: Cruz's appearance at Liberty University in Virginia on Monday was an empirically good presidential kickoff speech. Sure, there were some glitches (the fact that he never uses a podium means he sometimes had his back to the camera; there were some kids wearing Rand Paul shirts in the crowd). But overall, it's hard to say this wasn't a terrific speech. There was something for everybody. For those who want a more optimistic GOP, in the vein of Reagan and Rubio, Cruz's story about his parents achieving the American Dream (and his dad discovering his Christian faith) checked off that box. For small-government libertarian types who want to close down the IRS and stop Obama's executive amnesty, there was plenty of fodder. And if the setting weren't enough to woo evangelicals, Cruz's unapologetic talk about his faith certainly did the trick. If it weren't for candidates like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and perhaps Ben Carson threatening to peel off sizable chunks of the evangelical bloc, one could easily imagine Cruz dominating the social conservative vote during the GOP primary season.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Cruz's speech, though, is how much it reminded me of Senator Barack Obama. I'm obviously not the first person to compare these two ambitious, young, Ivy-educated freshmen senators who spent roughly 15 minutes in the U.S. Senate before deciding to run for president. But that's not what I'm referring to. Obama's message of "Hope and Change" was always premised on convincing voters who were desperate for something new and authentic to buy into the notion that he could change politics, unite the country, and appeal to his political enemies' better angels. There was no rational reason to believe Obama could get this done, of course. He had no track record of governing or of transcending the old model of politics. People who bought into his cult of personality simply believed it would happen — that he was special and that change would come to pass simply by virtue of the force of his personality and the majesty of his soaring rhetoric.
Cruz is tapping into the same notion. During his speech on Monday, he said the word "imagine" 38 times by my count. That's no accident. As Frank Luntz has wisely noted:
"Imagine" is still the most powerful word in the English language because it is inspiring, motivating, and has a unique definition for each person. When you want to inspire, imagine is the language vehicle. [Huffington Post]
Cruz used "imagine" to allude to the Revolutionary War, World War II, and the late 1970s. Each time, Cruz then noted how Washington, FDR, and Reagan were able to rise above improbable situations to save the day. Like so:
Imagine it’s 1933 and we were listening to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tell America at a time of crushing depression, at a time of a gathering storm abroad, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. [Cruz]
The suggestion is that America is at a similar crossroads today. And that there is a very special man who can magically restore America, just like Washington, Roosevelt, and Reagan did.
That man, you might have guessed, is Ted Cruz. At least according to Ted Cruz.
Editor's note: Matt Lewis' wife formerly consulted for Ted Cruz's 2012 Senate campaign, and currently consults for RickPAC.