If it were possible for Republicans to escape the confines of conservative movement politics, GOP presidential primaries would generate more ideas and fewer personalities. Instead, several like-minded contestants battle each other by cloaking similar nostrums in different political language, seeking different kinds of appeal.
This election cycle is no different, as nearly every likely candidate has a theory of how to expand the party’s reach outside the right. Jeb Bush distinguishes himself not by being definably less conservative than the other contestants but by refusing to sign interest group pledges. Senator Rand Paul speaks to young and minority voters even as his libertarian streak fades. Senator Marco Rubio gives speeches that showcase his facility with foreign policy idioms. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tries to imitate and worship President Ronald Reagan (who did pretty well in politics) better than his competitors.
This pattern, which has pervaded Republican politics in the Obama era, reflects both a widely shared belief that Republicans need a broader ideological appeal to win presidential elections, and a stubborn unwillingness to seek that appeal with actual heterodoxy rather than merely better-crafted messages. But it isn't a universal pattern—and Ted Cruz is the tribune for those on the right who reject the premise altogether.
In announcing his candidacy Monday morning, Cruz spoke in unabashed, exclusionary terms about whose interests he seeks to advance.
“Imagine millions of courageous conservatives all across America rising up together to say in unison, ‘We demand our liberty,’” he said. “Today, roughly half of born again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across america coming out to the polls and voting our values.”
It’s fitting that Cruz expressed this vision—of winning political power by consolidating the conservative electorate—before a captive audience of students at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a right-wing redoubt run almost exclusively by white Christian men. And in a way it’s also refreshing to have at least one candidate in the race who doesn’t waste much time pretending that the concerns of non-conservatives are of particular interest to him.
That’s precisely why Cruz’s White House bid doesn’t alarm liberals very much.
In Cruz' mind, the 2016 elections provide Republicans a chance—a final chance perhaps—to win the presidency on the strength of overwhelming conservative turnout. Of white voter shock and awe. Cruz believes there are still enough white conservatives in the country to swamp a rainbow coalition of Democratic presidential election voters, but only if Republicans indulge the former unresevedly. He's thus stipulating to Republicans that they can run as candidates of and for white people without causing so much offsetting retrenchment in the middle and on the left that their gains prove illusory.
But he's wrong about that. A message like Cruz’s isn’t just a loser in a general election. It isn’t even good enough to win a Republican primary.
Cruz has some famous limitations as a politician. But if he's really the living embodiment of the conservative Id, shouldn’t he at least be able to cakewalk through the Republican primary? In a world where grassroots conservatives were more hierarchical—which is to say, less grassrootsy—than they actually are, Cruz might be a real threat. But in the world we inhabit, several other conservatives will be wooing the same white, religious, conservative rump of GOP primary voters Cruz hopes to persuade with naked appeals like those he made at Liberty. Ironically, Cruz would be significantly better positioned today if he hadn't spent the last two years asserting and reasserting his right wing bona fides.
Many conservatives trust Cruz in a way they never trusted Mitt Romney. Unlike Romney, Cruz will never have to argue that he’s “severely conservative” as if it’s a matter up for debate. But Romney only needed to be so conservative, because the remainder of the field divvied up and thus diluted the right-wing vote, allowing him to capture the substantial share of the GOP primary electorate that’s more pragmatic about politics. If Cruz could somehow convince Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, and Rand Paul not to divide the conservative vote by jumping in, he would be a formidable contestant. If, like Scott Walker, he'd established appeal among conservative activists and party pragmatists alike, he'd be very well positioned. Instead, he polls pretty poorly.
But even if Cruz were a better-liked politician, with better fundraising potential, facing a better primary campaign dynamic, he’d still be a sitting duck in the general election. In Cruz’s mind, the GOP’s presidential woes are entirely attributable to the party’s frayed alliance with evangelical whites. Place a movement heavyweight like him atop the ticket and those voters will come home, leaving Democrats outnumbered. This is an appealing theory if you’re a white conservative, because it is inherently unsolicitous of the median voter, whose principles are likely compromised. It’s also incorrect—not because of the implausible assumptions about Democratic vs. Republican turnout, but because it's possible for a conservative to be too conservative for his own good. Cruz is just such a conservative. He's too conservative to play near the sweet spot, currently occupied by Walker, where conservative orthodoxy and Republican party politics are indistinguishable. And he's thus way too conservative to win over more than half the national electorate. Cruz is so conservative that if Barry Goldwater were still alive, he’d be a guest on cable news somewhere warning Republicans that Ted Cruz is too conservative to win the presidency.
In the end, presidential politicians craft their messages as broadly as they do for good reasons. If winning the presidency were as straightforward as winning a Republican House seat or, say, becoming the freshman Republican senator from Texas, Republicans would’ve amended the constitution in 1988 to allow Reagan to serve as many terms as he wanted. Posthumously if necessary. Cruz behaves as if there’s no downside to advertising a commitment to the political ambitions of a vocal minority. It's one thing for a candidate to argue that his ideological leanings will make the country better for all citizens. It’s quite another to say that’s all ancillary to the question of whether or not conservative voters are happy. The quality that will make Cruz’s campaign interesting is the very same thing that will doom it.