In theory, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz should be coming into this week triumphant, having won the blessing of his conservative peers at CPAC. He's not. By most accounts (including that of attendees) Cruz played second fiddle to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul at the conference, suggesting that, over the short term, Cruz's far-right-or-fight strategy hasn't borne much fruit with mainstream conservatives in his party. Is his base big enough to do anything?
Each year, the Conservative Political Action Conference holds a presidential straw poll. The results are generally fairly mainstream, despite the conference's efforts to represent the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Mitt Romney won in 2007 through 2009 and in 2012. Ron Paul won in 2010 and 2011, in part thanks to some fervent advocacy at the conference. It's not a particularly important milestone, any more than any of the straw polls that crop up between presidential elections. But at a conservative conference, you might think that a prominent senator who's been focused on proving his hard-right conservative bona fides would triumph. Cruz didn't. Paul did, for the second year running — and by a wide margin.
"To me one of the takeaways was that Ted Cruz was not the story out of this CPAC," Republican consultant Ana Navarro told ABC News' This Week on Sunday. Cruz spent the past year explicitly trying to gin up excitement among the sorts of people who are supposed to attend conservative conferences. Cruz did win one poll over the weekend, an online poll put together by the Senate Conservatives Fund, with which Cruz has been sporadically affiliated. And he came in a closer second in a Drudge Report poll, which conservative site WorldNetDaily breathlessly dubbed a "sizzling new poll" that again defies the establishment. For the record, online polls are probably even worse statistical tools than straw polls, so Cruz shouldn't take too much comfort.
Paul spun off of CPAC with confidence. On Fox News Sunday, he suggested that he, unlike other possible 2016 contenders, would be able to lure younger voters to the GOP. As Bloomberg reports, Paul indicated that his focus on privacy is "a message that can grow the party, and the party’s got to grow bigger or we’re not going to win again." (To Paul's enormous credit, he's also up front about considering a run, instead of being coy about it.)
Cruz, by contrast, went to ABC News to play catch-up with Paul. "I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy," Cruz told ABC's Jonathan Karl. "I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did… The United States has a responsibility to defend our values." Cruz took that same message to a more receptive audience than he found at CPAC. At a rival, even more conservative conference a few blocks away from the main show, Cruz insisted that "the world needs another Ronald Reagan," according to Newsweek's Pema Levy.
That second conference was for those considered too conservative / extreme for CPAC — which may be the heart of Cruz's base. Cruz's efforts to balance between mainstream acceptability and staunch conservative appeal may already be doomed, and dooming the sense of viability that any political party demands of its presidential candidates. In that interview with Karl, it becomes clear why: It can be hard to take Cruz seriously. The exchange, as transcribed by the conservative site Newsbusters, dealt with repealing Obamacare.
KARL: So you honestly think there's a chance that you can get Obamacare repealed? Every word, as you say?
CRUZ: Every single word.
KARL: Even with Obama in the White House.
CRUZ: What’s funny, Jon, is the media treats that as a bizarre proposition.
KARL: Well, it is, because he’s not going to sign it. It is a bizarre proposition.
When reporters feel bold enough to call your ideas bizarre to your face, it doesn't bode well for building broad popular support.
Even in the aftermath of the government shutdown in October, Cruz insisted that he carried the support of the American people. And there is a contingent that does, or did even after that shutdown proved to be such a debacle. But with the Tea Party barely making a dent in even Texas' primaries earlier this month, and with Cruz unable to energize the mainstream far-right of the party (is that a thing?), it's not clear what actual path Cruz has to the 2016 Republican nomination. If he's running. Cruz is still being coy.
Update, 11:30 a.m.: Paul hit back, indirectly, in a post at Breitbart about Reagan.
Every Republican likes to think he or she is the next Ronald Reagan. Some who say this do so for lack of their own ideas and agenda. Reagan was a great leader and President. But too often people make him into something he wasn’t in order to serve their own political purposes.