Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has quietly run a very interesting presidential campaign. He hasn’t held the spotlight much, but he’s raised a lot of money, laid the groundwork for a credible ground game, positioned himself to benefit if/when the Amateur Duo falters, and held his fire, waiting to see who his real rivals are going to be.
Last night, however, Cruz offered a peek into his broader strategy.
“Historically, there have been two major lanes in the Republican primary,” the Texas senator told CNN’s Jake Tapper last night. “There’s been a moderate lane and a conservative lane. And, in past cycles, there’s been a consensus moderate choice early on… Look, I think Marco is certainly formidable in that lane. I think the Jeb campaign seems to view Marco as his biggest threat in the moderate lane. And so I think they’re going to slug it out for a while.“But, when you look at the conservative lane, what I’m really encouraged by is that conservatives are consolidating behind our campaign… And once it gets down to a head-to-head contest between a conservative and a moderate … I think the conservative wins.”
Let’s strip away the spin for a minute: Marco Rubio is breathtakingly conservative. He’s a climate denier who desperately wants to give billionaires a massive tax break the country can’t afford. The Florida Republican believes Medicare and Social Security have weakened Americans; he thinks the war in Iraq, even in hindsight, was a fine idea; he still opposes marriage equality; he doesn’t think the federal minimum wage should exist; and Rubio’s so hostile towards reproductive rights that he believes the government has the authority to force impregnated rape victims to take that pregnancy to term, even against her wishes. The guy voted against a bipartisan Violence Against Women Act, even when he knew it would pass easily anyway.
If Marco Rubio prevails in the 2016 race, he would be the most right-wing major-party nominee in generations. If he wins a general election, he’d be the most extreme president in modern American history. There is nothing “moderate” about him.
But that’s not quite what Ted Cruz is talking about.
As the Texas senator sees it, in every race for the Republican presidential nomination, candidates invariably find themselves in “lanes.” And under this framework, there’s always an establishment favorite who’s friendly with party insiders, picks up a lot of endorsements, generates a lot of positive media buzz, etc. For Cruz, this is the “moderate” lane – the label isn’t necessarily related to issue positions, per se, but it’s more about tone and relationships.
In the current GOP fight, the assumption has long been this “lane” would be occupied by Rubio, Jeb Bush, or perhaps John Kasich. But with Kasich struggling, and Jeb faltering, it seems increasingly likely that Rubio will be this establishment “moderate.”
We know – because he’s said so repeatedly – exactly what Ted Cruz is going to tell Republican voters: “You could pick the establishment ‘moderate’ and media darling, or you could choose the unapologetic conservative. Remember, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney were establishment ‘moderates,’ too, and look how the election turned out for us in those cycles.”
A Cruz ally told the conservative Washington Examiner this week, “The difference is, who went to Washington and stood up, not just to Democrats, but to his own party, on issue after issue? The other fatal problem for Marco is ‘gang of eight’ support. People don’t trust him.”
Want to know what the Republican race is going to look and sound like in January? This strikes me as a pretty explicit hint.