Ted Cruz May Be Unwittingly Boosting Rand Paul’s Brand

Cruz has redefined extremism in the Republican Party to such an extent that Paul doesn’t come across as such a dangerous fringe candidate anymore.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) leaves a Republican Senate caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol September 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. If House Republicans do not find common ground with President Obama and Senate Democrats on the federal budget then at midnight large sections of the government will close, hundreds of thousands of workers would be furloughed without pay, and millions more would be asked to work for no pay. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Sept. 30, 2013, 5 p.m.

Next time Rand Paul sees his fel­low Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate fresh­man Ted Cruz, he should give the Tex­an a big wet kiss. There was a time not that long ago when the mere sug­ges­tion of Paul as a pos­sible 2016 pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee sent chills down the spines of many main­stream and mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans who saw the Ken­tucki­an as a sure thing to drag the party down in the next elec­tion. But Cruz has re­defined ex­trem­ism in the Re­pub­lic­an Party to such an ex­tent that Rand Paul doesn’t come across as such a dan­ger­ous fringe can­did­ate any­more. The truth is that Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate in­siders say that they have been pleas­antly sur­prised by Paul, who makes a point of sit­ting with or near his fel­low Ken­tucki­an, Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, and, while not com­prom­ising his ideo­logy, seems to be try­ing to get along with his fel­low GOP col­leagues. He seems to be a pretty fast learner and more prag­mat­ic than many pre­dicted. Con­versely, long­time Cap­it­ol Hill ob­serv­ers are strug­gling to re­call a fresh­man who ali­en­ated as many mem­bers as Cruz has — in both the Sen­ate and the House, among both Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats — in such a short peri­od of time. One wag re­marked this week that if this were ju­ni­or high school, Cruz would find him­self stuffed in a lock­er nearly every day. He has yet to learn how to dis­agree without be­ing dis­agree­able.

Double-open pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, mean­ing ones without a sit­ting pres­id­ent seek­ing reelec­tion, are of­ten de­fin­ing or po­ten­tially re­de­fin­ing events for their parties. The lack of an in­cum­bent gives each party the op­por­tun­ity to have a fresh start; they get to choose what they want to look like, who they are. Giv­en the his­tor­ic­al tend­ency of Re­pub­lic­ans to be a hier­arch­ic­al party, they usu­ally nom­in­ate who­ever it is whose turn it is to be the party’s stand­ard-bear­er, usu­ally a cur­rent or former vice pres­id­ent or pres­id­en­tial con­tender. But Re­pub­lic­ans will enter the 2016 cam­paign without an ob­vi­ous or nat­ur­al suc­cessor, so they really are start­ing from scratch. Nobody enters this con­test with an up­per hand.

It was clear that last year Re­pub­lic­ans wanted a very, very, very con­ser­vat­ive nom­in­ee. In­deed, the GOP ex­hausted every con­ceiv­able al­tern­at­ive be­fore set­tling on Mitt Rom­ney to be their can­did­ate. Ac­tu­ally there were some pretty in­con­ceiv­able front-run­ners at vari­ous points in the pro­cess. The GOP’s clear pref­er­ence was for someone sig­ni­fic­antly more con­ser­vat­ive than Rom­ney, but the op­tions all seemed pretty badly flawed or drew from too nar­row a base, so they even­tu­ally gave in and re­luct­antly nom­in­ated the former Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor.

Lo­gic would sug­gest that the chal­lenge for Re­pub­lic­ans would be to find someone suf­fi­ciently con­ser­vat­ive to uni­fy the party and se­cure the party’s nom­in­a­tion, yet still be broadly ac­cept­able enough to be elect­able in a na­tion­al gen­er­al elec­tion. However, as reas­on­able as that may be to some of us, it is not so ob­vi­ous to oth­ers. Re­pub­lic­ans’ choice of Barry Gold­wa­ter in 1964 and Demo­crats’ choice of George McGov­ern in 1972 seemed to re­flect more of a “if it feels good, do it” man­tra than a strictly prag­mat­ic ap­proach to win­ning the White House. Gold­wa­ter’s fam­ous line from his nom­in­a­tion ac­cept­ance speech that “ex­trem­ism in the de­fense of liberty is no vice” would find many in the party nod­ding in agree­ment. Both Gold­wa­ter and McGov­ern flamed out in a spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion, but their de­feats in both cases triggered a move back to­ward the middle for their party with a vic­tori­ous res­ult four years later. Some­times a party has to hit rock bot­tom be­fore it can shake off a really bad idea.

My com­pet­it­or and close friend Stu­art Rothen­berg has writ­ten re­cently com­par­ing where Re­pub­lic­ans are today with where Demo­crats were in the late 1980s. Hav­ing lost three con­sec­ut­ive pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, the party was fi­nally con­vinced that it needed to move to­ward the cen­ter, with the Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil and its former chair­man, Bill Clin­ton, lead­ing the way to vic­tory in 1992. The Demo­crat­ic base wasn’t that happy about it, but it sure got them the White House for two terms and the most pop­u­lar votes in three con­sec­ut­ive elec­tions. It could be that Re­pub­lic­ans have to lose one more time to get this out of their sys­tem, if in fact los­ing three times in a row is re­quired to do the trick.

Con­ser­vat­ives are very proud of the fact that there are more of them than there are lib­er­als; in the most re­cent NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll, 38 per­cent iden­ti­fied them­selves as con­ser­vat­ive, com­pared with just 24 per­cent who called them­selves lib­er­al. But 36 per­cent call them­selves mod­er­ate, and exit polls showed that this mod­er­ate group voted for Barack Obama over Rom­ney by a 15-point mar­gin. While in­de­pend­ents did vote for Rom­ney over Obama by 5 points, the fact is that the share of voters who still call them­selves Re­pub­lic­ans has dropped so much that Rom­ney — and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, for that mat­ter — can win the in­de­pend­ent vote and still lose the na­tion­al pop­u­lar vote. In the new­est NBC/WSJ poll, con­duc­ted by Demo­crat Peter Hart and Re­pub­lic­an Bill McIn­turff, the party-iden­ti­fic­a­tion split showed that there is now a 12-point gap between the parties: 33 per­cent call them­selves Demo­crats, 21 per­cent Re­pub­lic­ans, and now 41 per­cent in­de­pend­ents. With the gap between the parties grow­ing so wide, win­ning a ma­jor­ity of in­de­pend­ents is ne­ces­sary but no longer suf­fi­cient for Re­pub­lic­ans to win na­tion­ally. With a gap this wide, a GOP nom­in­ee would have to win in­de­pend­ents by a heck of a lot more than 5 points to win a gen­er­al elec­tion.

My hunch today is that the more vis­ible Ted Cruz is over the next two and a half years, the more ac­cept­able Rand Paul will ap­pear to Re­pub­lic­ans who are true to their con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples but would still like to win the pres­id­ency.

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