Ted Cruz's "Scott Walker" problem: Why they're both making false promises to the Tea Party

The fight to be the alternative to Jeb Bush is officially on. Here's why Cruz and Walker are destined to clash

Published March 23, 2015 5:57PM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)
(Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

Speaking at the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University on Monday morning in front of a crowd of students for whom attendance was mandatory, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz surprised no one by declaring himself a candidate for president. Cruz is far from the only Republican who wants to be commander-in-chief badly enough to undergo the soul-sucking ordeal of a presidential campaign, but he is the first to make his candidacy official. (He’s the only one to skip the farcical “exploratory” phase, which allows a candidate to raise money without technically running, too.) After an interminably long invisible primary, the 2016 presidential campaign now begins.

Besides using an “imagine a president who… rhetorical device that made him sound more like an infomercial host than a serious politician, the content of Cruz’s speech wasn’t particularly noteworthy. As is his wont, Cruz described President Obama as a disastrous failure, promised to “defend the sanctity of human life,” and vowed to destroy the Affordable Care Act and repeal Common Core (which, for the record, is not a federal law). Appropriately, given his chosen locale for the announcement, Cruz also devoted much of his 25 minutes extolling God and advertising his devout Christianity. “There are people who wonder if faith is real,” Cruz said before pronouncing that, in his family, “there is not a second of doubt.”

As the New York Times rightly noted in its writeup of the event, Cruz “spoke directly to conservatives, with no real broad appeal to the more moderate wing of his party.” But while the coming week will no doubt feature many pundits telling you that Cruz blew it by refusing to praise compromise and moderation, you should ignore them. Because unlike Jeb Bush, one of his many unofficial opponents, Cruz will not have the financial power or establishment support necessary to “lose the primary” in service of winning the general election. To make it to the White House, he’ll need to win the GOP primary by uniting the Tea Party behind him first. Which makes Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — and not the faux-moderate Bush — the primary obstacle standing in Cruz’s way.

What brings Cruz and Walker together, and makes them one another’s most immediate threat, is not their shared policy convictions. With the notable exception of immigration reform, the GOP field is, as always, unified on the big questions. Instead, the reason the two men may fight each other first before the winner moves on to Jeb is because they both are trying to win the Tea Party’s support with the same outlandish promise. Chiefly, that the GOP presidential nominee doesn’t have to be seen as a moderate to win, and that a diehard conservative candidate would fare better — or at least just as well. Needless to say, this pitch appeals to many a conservative; it’s the modern conservative movement’s version of having your cake and eating it, too.

Both men have shied away from putting it quite so bluntly, of course. But I’m not exactly reading tea leaves, either. Cruz recently argued that Bush would be “another candidate in the mold of a Bob Dole or a John McCain or a Mitt Romney,” but he’s been making essentially the same case for years. By his telling, the conventional explanation for Barack Obama’s victories — that the GOP suffered from far-right stances that have alienated Latinos, millennials and women — has got it exactly backwards. It’s not that Republicans can’t win with the broader electorate; it’s that the idea of supporting the GOP’s “moderate” candidates so depressed the country’s conservatives that they didn’t bother to show up.

Walker’s made essentially the same argument, but from a different angle. Rather than point to recent failures, as Cruz does, Walker prefers to direct voters’ attention to recent successes. More specifically, his. “To win the center, you don’t have to go to the center,” Walker said recently at a Tea Party fundraiser. Instead of promoting policies that voters like, Walker argued, “you have to lead.” Implicitly, Walker is claiming that such leadership is what allowed him to win three-straight elections in a Dem-leaning state. But Walker, like Cruz, isn’t trying something new here. He was dismissing the value of bipartisanship, the legislative version of moderation, as far back as 2013.

For all the similarities between their political approaches, though, there is one significant way in which Cruz and Walker differ. And it’s why you should consider the midwestern governor a more serious threat to Bush than the Texan in the Senate. Because although Walker is more popular than Bush with the Tea Party rank-and-file, he hasn’t earned their support at the cost of alienating the party establishment. For now, at least, there’s no real difference between how he performs in front of CPAC or Manhattan’s conservative elite. Cruz, on the other hand, has built his reputation in large part on antagonizing the GOP infrastructure; he’s known as the most-hated man in the Senate for a reason.

If Walker turns out to be as lousy a candidate as he so far appears — which is what Cruz’s team claims to believe — then this might not be a big problem for Cruz. But even then, he’d have to contend with Sen. Rand Paul, who is beloved by the Tea Party and has a better relationship than Cruz with the GOP’s old guard. I’ve no doubt that Cruz sees himself as the modern version of Barry Goldwater ’64. But what’s more likely, I think, is that the celebration at Liberty is the best moment Ted Cruz ‘16 will see.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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