Ted Cruz is brilliantly positioning himself to run in 2016 as the true leader of the party's conservative wing: a Spanish-surnamed Princeton grad and Harvard lawyer who checks all the ideological boxes, who stood apart from the Gang of Eight immigration deal and by the general weirdness of the Paul family's conspiracy-mongering.
Yet … there is something about him that even the hardest-liners just cannot accept. First Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post and now today Kimberley Strassel in the Wall Street Journal have each thrown their full weight at the Texas senator.
The dishonest part is the way in which today's self-anointed arbiters of "conservatism" cast these disputes over strategy in ideological terms. The vast majority of today's Republicans are in fact ardent defenders of the Second Amendment, passionate about repealing ObamaCare, in favor of lower taxes. The big disagreements are over how best to accomplish these aims.
Yet disagree with Mr. Cruz on his filibuster strategy, and you are a "squish." Take a different line from the Club for Growth on pre-existing conditions (or any of its poorly vetted Senate candidates), and you are "the establishment." Think slightly different than Jim DeMint—now at Heritage, serving as maestro of the rebel orchestra—and you are not "conservative." These terms are used with great calculation. Take our orders, or we will brand you a RINO in a primary.
These days, the squishes apparently include groups like Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks, which supported the pre-existing conditions bill. They include rock-ribbed conservatives like Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who did not join the gun filibuster threat—issued before the bill was written. "I've done more filibusters than Rand Paul is old," said Mr. Coburn at the time—adding that his rule is to first read what he's filibustering.
These groups are sincere in their belief that only by standing on principle can the party draw a sharp distinction with Mr. Obama. Yet it is, after all, possible to be both principled and . . . smart!
Ouch. Yet seriously there cannot be any doubt about Ted Cruz's "smarts." He's just smart for different ends - his own ends. It's this that rubs so many conservatives the wrong way, and that may yet prove Cruz's undoing. A little while ago I asked a Texas conservative I know to unpack the antipathy aroused by Cruz. He recently returned from a Cruz fundraiser to fire off the below e-mail:
Ted Cruz was just a lawyer until 20 minutes ago, and a nerdy one at that. He was a high school debater, and essentially still is. He has no military, business, or government experience. And now he's being feted as Cicero even though his speeches are mostly banal broadsides against Barry, Janet Napolitano, and Big Government. He has no legislative accomplishments, but "bold leadership" now is bragging to your friends that you called all of your Senate GOP colleagues "squishes" to their faces. He made an ass out of himself by trying to cross-examine Diane Feinstein, trying to trap her into saying that the Bill of Rights only applies to some people, but she ate his lunch. Still, he's Cicero.
And politicians always tell us that the brown shirts are beating down the Gates of Freedom, but I can't shake the sense that he's smart enough to know he's simply stoking the base's fear. The last straw for me was this "national gun registry" nonsense that seemed more Infowars than Fox News because he never really said "once we have a national gun registry, Barry will come take your guns," but that's the fear he was playing. Never mind that that will never happen, but whatever. Same thing with the drones. Stoke the fear without fully naming it, let the audience get all riled up, then promise to "fight for freedom."
But more than anything, he's of the Jim DeMint/Mark Sanford mold of "movement conservatives" strangely uninterested in actually legislating. They like to think that they're speaking truth to power in government, when in reality they are just pundits who rail against the feds while they and their staffs are receiving nice government paychecks. Say what you will about Rush Limbaugh, but he pays his own bills.
Lastly, at his speech last night, Cruz got lots of hoots and hollers for his stump speech about guns/growth/freedom. But to his credit, he kept emphasizing that the rich and big companies are doing really well now, but it's getting harder for the poor and middle class to rise up. At one point, he said something to the effect, "You know what the problem with the '47% line' was? We need to be FOR the 47%, not just the 53%. We need to help those people up, not speak down to them." He dropped three or four of those nuggets. I was the only one who applauded.