I can’t pretend to be neutral about Ted Cruz, who formally announced Monday that he’s running for president. Fortunately, Tailgunner Ted’s chances of winning the Republican nomination are extremely slim at best. Opposition from Republicans who care about winning in 2016 will doom the chances of a senator whose tactics (his role in the 2013 government shutdown, for example, and the recent Homeland Security funding fight) have established him as a loudmouth loser. They might look past the loudmouth part, but not the losses.
At the same time, Cruz isn’t different enough from the other candidates on the issues to expect most conservatives to overlook what they don’t like about him. He may think he’s Ronald Reagan in 1976, but conservatives back then didn’t have anywhere else to go, and even in 1980 the Republican presidential field was packed with moderates and almost-liberals.
That Republican Party is long gone. They’re all conservatives now, all 19 or so quasi-candidates running for the Republican nomination (with the partial exception of libertarian-minded Rand Paul). They all toe the line on abortion, on taxes, on guns and more, even if in the heat of the campaign they'll try to find ways to differentiate themselves.
So why is Cruz running? There’s speculation he’s angling for a Fox News slot. But he could have that anytime he wants. Or that he’s running for vice president. Even more unlikely. The spot rarely goes to those who fail at “plays well with others.”
The story the Cruz camp is telling is that if he loses this time, it’s part of a Reaganesque slow buildup toward an eventual triumph. It’s true that Reagan’s first run, in 1968, was only two years into his first term as governor of California. On the other hand, absolutely nothing else about Cruz’s actions over the last two years suggests a gradual accumulation of support. Reagan’s style involved building the conservative wing of the party, not dividing it so he could be king of his own hill.
We don’t have access to what’s in Cruz’s mind, but my guess is it’s pretty simple: He thinks he can win. Few politicians get to be senators or governors without feeling they’ve beaten overwhelming odds, and Cruz pulled off an upset to win the Republican Senate nominationin 2012 (though the accomplishment looks less impressive in retrospect given that the seemingly strong Republican candidate he defeated in the primary, Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, was routed in his next re-election bid).
But almost anybody can win a Senate nomination, in the right state and circumstances. Presidential nominations are a different story. Flukes simply don’t happen, and Cruz’s strong debating skills, honed at the populist precincts of Princeton and Harvard Law School, aren’t going to change that.
A polling surge, if he gets one, will be met by some of those high-profile Republicans who dislike him – they will fight back publicly - as well as by other well-connected Republicans who will strike more quietly, generating negative stories about him.
Cruz may believe that it would only take a slightly different Republican Party for him to win and that he’s skilled enough to bring this change about. But his problem isn’t that the GOP needs to be more conservative – it’s already more conservative. His problem is that he’s Ted Cruz, who alienates his colleagues and throws up one hare-brained stunt after another.
If he’s going to fix that, it’s going to take longer than this presidential cycle, and it’s going to take very different behavior than what he’s shown since arriving in Washington.