“I’m running for President, and I hope to earn your support!” the forty-four year-old Texas Senator Ted Cruz said on Twitter, shortly after midnight on Monday, accompanying his tweet with a thirty-second campaign commercial that featured footage of the Golden Gate Bridge, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Little League baseball, and other iconic scenes.
The conventional wisdom is that Cruz hasn’t got a chance, and, as far as the Presidency goes, it’s probably accurate. To many Americans, he is the uppity loudmouth who, in the fall of 2013, less than a year into his first term as a senator, helped bring the federal government to a halt. Noted for railing against President Obama and denying the existence of climate change, he holds views that, according to an analysis by the Web site FiveThirtyEight, make him “more conservative than every recent G.O.P. nominee, every ’12 contender and every plausible ’16 candidate.”
But if Cruz’s ultra-conservatism rules him out as a serious Presidential contender, it won’t necessarily work to his disadvantage in the Republican primaries, where his first goal is to distinguish himself from other right-wingers who are leading him in the polls, such as Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson. As Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich demonstrated in 2012, the conservative G.O.P. electorate is a fluid one, which falls for articulate rogues who can package age-old nostrums and prejudices in rhetoric that vaguely resembles a coherent political philosophy. Although Cruz is off to a slow start, this weakness should play to his rhetorical skills, which are superior to those of the rest of the G.O.P. field.
At Princeton, Cruz was a national debating champion (and was, according to a roommate, known to carry a book entitled, “Was Karl Marx A Satanist?”). At Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1995, he was also known as a formidable public speaker. “He had brilliant insights and he was clearly among the top students, as revealed by his class responses,” the Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz told the Daily Caller last year.
About ten hours after sending out his tweet, Cruz took the stage at Liberty University, which Jerry Falwell founded, in 1971, in Lynchburg, Virginia, and which is now the world’s biggest college for evangelical Christians. The weekly convocation at Liberty has long served as a platform for conservative Republicans, and it’s less than two hundred miles from Washington, D.C., which means that it is within easy access for the media hordes. All in all, it’s an ideal location for a conservative candidate in need of a lift.
Cruz, clad in a conservative dark suit (what else?) and accompanied by his wife, Heidi, and their two young daughters, rose to the occasion. Prowling the stage, he talked for almost half an hour without notes, casting himself as the leader of a “grassroots army” of liberty-loving Christians who would pull America back from the jaws of secular damnation. Although most of the students in the crowd were obliged to attend, Cruz appeared to engage many of them, and he avoided making any slip-ups. As a piece of political theater, it was highly effective.
He started out by talking about his background as the son of a Cuban immigrant who fought to bring down the dictator Fulgencio Batista during the Cuban revolution, but who subsequently turned against Fidel Castro and, at the age of eighteen, decided to move to the United States. “Imagine, for a second, the hope that was in his heart as he rode that ferry boat across to Key West and got onboard a Greyhound bus to head to Austin, Texas, to begin working, washing dishes, making fifty cents an hour,” Cruz said. But the thoughts of an immigrant fifty-odd years ago weren’t the only thing that he wanted the crowd to imagine. Indeed, as the speech developed, it sounded increasingly like he was channelling John Lennon. But not Lennon the atheist skeptic and peacenik: this was a Liberty University version of the Beatle.
“Imagine, instead of economic stagnation, booming economic growth,” Cruz said. “Imagine young people coming out of school with four, five, six job offers. … Imagine in 2017 a new President signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare. … Imagine a simple flat tax that lets every American fill out his or her taxes on a postcard. … Imagine abolishing the I.R.S. … Imagine a federal government that works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage. … Imagine a federal government that protects the right to keep and bear arms of all law-abiding Americans.”
If there were any liberal Democrats tuning in, they were probably hurling things at the screen by now. Cruz wasn’t done. “Imagine repealing every word of Common Core,” he went on. “Imagine a President who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel.” (That one earned him his biggest cheer yet.) “Imagine a President who says, ‘I will honor the Constitution.’ … Imagine a President who says, ‘We will stand up and defeat radical Islamic terrorism, and we will call it by its name.’ ”
Appearing to be thoroughly enjoying himself, Cruz conceded that some of his wish list might be difficult, or even impossible, to imagine. He reminded his audience that, in 1979, when Ronald Reagan started his second Presidential campaign, it would have been equally impossible to imagine the Berlin Wall coming down and the Soviet Union collapsing. “Compared to that, repealing Obamacare and abolishing the I.R.S. ain’t all that tough,” Cruz said. Then he asked the audience members, most of whom weren’t born when Reagan left office, to text the words “Constitution” or “imagine” to the number 33733.
What did that mean? Most likely that Cruz intends to run as the Howard Dean of the religious right—a tub-thumping insurgent who uses social media to outmaneuver better-financed rivals. Speaking on Fox News, Joe Trippi, the Democratic strategist who ran Dean’s campaign in 2004, said after the speech, “I thought he did a great job.” Ed Rollins, the veteran Republican operative who was once Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, was equally impressed. He raised the prospect of Cruz winning the Texas primary, which will take place next March, and emerging as a serious contender.
That’s looking a long way ahead, and Cruz has a lot of ground to make up. In the latest CNN/ORC poll of Republican-leaning voters, just four per cent of respondents picked him, placing him eighth in the G.O.P. field. But the Texan terror does have the first-mover advantage, and, for one day, at least, he made the most of it.