Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announced yesterday that he is running for president, and a lot of the coverage focused on his positioning as the wingiest of the right-wingers. As Politico put it, his strategy is to destroy the "mushy middle." He made his announcement at Liberty University, ground zero for the Christian Right. Politico reported:
Advisers to the 44-year-old say he is not trying to repackage himself as primarily a social conservative. Instead, the senator’s team sees four brackets in the GOP primary field: the tea party, evangelicals, libertarians and establishment Republicans. The goal, they explain, is to establish Cruz as the first choice of tea partyers and become at least the second choice of evangelicals.
Most regard Cruz as a darkhorse and express skepticism that this strategy can really win him the nomination, to say nothing of the general election. But there is clearly a strong base of support to be found in offering up the strongest Tea, and Cruz has gone from back bencher to national contender in short order by staking out more extreme positions (and doing so more bombastically) than other Republicans. You have to work hard to be the wackiest GOP in the caucus and Cruz has been working overtime. In an increasingly dogmatic party, he's the dog barking loudest. As the National Review's Eliana Johnson put it, "nobody can out-conservative Ted Cruz." Another NR writer, Jim Gerghty, concluded that he was a longshot for the nomination but he "will easily get elected President of Conservative America."
And of course there are advantages to being the president of Conservative America: a role in setting the agenda of the Republican party, a powerful fundraising apparatus and base of grassroots support…and sometimes, when things break, a real shot at the nomination (see Goldwater, see Reagan). It's worth keeping in mind that in an increasingly polarized political landscape, the Republican Party seems to just keep moving rightward. The "establishment" still has plenty of king-making sway in the GOP, but would anyone be surprised if the Republican frontrunner in, say, 2020 is simply whoever "out-conservatives" the field?
Which brings me to an unrelated piece in the Huffington Post that came out a few days before the Cruz announcement, asking whether the newly elected junior senator from Arkansas is "Ted Cruz 2.0":
The fact that Tom Cotton is so willing to brazenly raid the Ted Cruz playbook indicates that he sees himself as a head-on rival.
Nobody can out-conservative Ted Cruz? Well, Cotton just might try. A turf battle for the fringes would lead to some ugly histrionics in an already ugly Congress in the coming years. And if Cotton decides make a play for national office in 2020, he would be making a direct challenge to the Cruz spot, with some potential advantages that Cruz lacks. As I've written elsewhere, Cotton would scramble a GOP primary in unpredictable ways. Like Cruz, he would aim to be the first choice of Tea Partiers and at least the second choice of evangelicals. But he is also staking his claim to fame on a brand of extremism that Cruz has only dabbled in: Cotton finds the absolutely most cartoonishly hawkish foreign policy position and then goes one step further in promoting neoconservative adventuring and bellicose American aggression. Thus, the letter to Iranian officials attempting to undermine the president's negotiations, the reference to Hitler within a minute of his first speech on the senate floor, the demands for massive increases in defense spending. This sets Cotton apart and helpfully gives him credibility with establishment types who haven't given up on neocon dreams. At least so far, Cotton's been able to have his red meat and eat it too. He's just as much of a Tea Party darling as Cruz but hasn't earned the scorn of the GOP establishment.
It will be interesting to watch whether Cruz and Cotton clash as they fight it out for the extremist crown. The national media has generally assumed that Tom Cotton's crazy antics of late have backfired, but crazy can be a pretty good place to be when Republican primaries roll around.
*UPDATE: A reader points out that Cotton has cited Cruz as a role model of sorts in the past and NBC News reported last year when Cotton was a representative that he kept a photo of himself with Cruz in his Congressional office. Heh.