Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) came out swinging against members of his own party Thursday, telling a conference of conservative activists that GOP leaders in Congress had sold out to Democrats on immigration and that presidential contenders should be judged by their willingness to stand up to the party establishment. "The biggest division we have in the country is not between Republicans and Democrats,'' Mr. Cruz, a likely 2016 presidential contender, told the Conservative Political Action Conference. "It is between career politicians in Washington and the American people."
Successful presidential candidates have often made good use of a "triangulation" strategy. Different political scientists may offer competing definitions of the phrase, but the basic idea is to exploit public disapproval of both parties by positioning a candidate as something altogether separate -- and better.
Bill Clinton was known for his embrace of triangulation, offering himself as a "third way" between the left and right, though George W. Bush dabbled in this, too. In late 1999, the then-Texas governor said of his own party's budget plan, "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor." (We were supposed to note the use of "they," instead of "we.")
When both parties are unpopular, this can be a smart and effective tactic. Many voters will gravitate towards national candidates willing to criticize both parties, including their own. And with this in mind, it was interesting yesterday to see Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) try a similar move in his CPAC remarks (thanks to my colleague Nick Tuths for the heads-up).
"If you have a candidate who's stood against Democrats, that's great," the Republican senator said, quickly adding, "When have you been willing to stand up against Republicans? When have you been willing to stand with the people?"
To be sure, this is not, strictly speaking, how triangulation has traditionally been defined -- Cruz isn't putting himself between the two parties.
But it's arguably triangulation with a twist. Instead of rejecting two parties as the extremes, Cruz is saying he opposes what he sees as two moderate parties. The Texas senator doesn't want to be above or between Democrats and Republicans; he wants to be to their right.
For Cruz, there are two clear benefits to the strategy. The first is that much of the Republican base often voices frustrations that their far-right party just isn't conservative enough. Cruz is effectively telling them he wants to be their voice.
And second, it's no secret that the Texas Republican is not at all popular with his own colleagues in his own party, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) even referring to him as a "wacko bird" at one point. Triangulation with a twist offers Cruz a way to exploit his unpopularity -- of course he's unpopular with Capitol Hill insiders, he'll say, since he stands apart from both parties.
Is there an audience for this message with Republican primary voters? Watch this space.