It seems fair to say that Senator Ted Cruz has been one of the Left’s least favorite Republicans until now. He’s fiery, he excels at picking apart their ideology, he’s studied and mastered their methods to a worrisome degree, and he actually tries to do stuff in the Senate.
Also, he’s a Hispanic Tea Party conservative from Texas, and a trained lawyer. In the spirit of Halloween, Cruz could be described as a Frankenstein creation, stitched together from everything liberals fear is hiding under their beds.
And yet, in the wake of his strong performance in the third Republican presidential debate, Cruz seems to be winning a strange new respect from some quarters of the Left. This is not to be confused with the Strange New Respect award the media loves to bestow on useful Republicans who “grow in office” and embrace liberal ideas. It’s genuine respect for Cruz, and it’s darn peculiar.
For example, the Huffington Post ran not one, but two articles proclaiming Cruz the winner of the debate. One of them is entitled “Face It: Ted Cruz Won the Republican Debate.” Senior political economy reporter Zach Carter found Cruz taking back the conservative populist thunder from Donald Trump and Ben Carson: “On debate night, Cruz outshone them both without targeting either. He dodged a question about the debt limit to rail against the media, generating the biggest applause of the night. As Trump and Carson delivered snoozy performances, Cruz looked fired up.”
Cater also thought Cruz outmaneuvered Marco Rubio, who had a very good night, by nearly universal acclamation. Rubio might have put Jeb Bush down for the count, but Cruz denied him access to the “outsider bloc.”
Elsewhere at the Huffington Post, we hear that “Ted Cruz Is Looking Surprisingly Good”:
Cruz built a strategy months if not years ago, and it’s working about as well as it possibly could. The short version: If he’s the second choice for enough voters, he’ll have the broadest base of support left when the dust clears. He effectively articulated this strategy during this week’s primary debate.
“If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy. But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home,” he said, among the weirdest come-ons a candidate has ever offered voters.
To get that broad base of voters in his car at closing time, Cruz is trying to play in what he and his campaign call the various “lanes” or “brackets” that make up the GOP coalition. Preacher Mike Huckabee, for instance, runs in the evangelical lane; Rand Paul in the liberty lane; Jeb Bush in the establishment lane; and somebody like Scott Walker in the conservative movement lane. Cruz has been working to compete in each one.
And the longer that Ben Carson and Donald Trump distract the establishment, the closer Cruz can get to the Southern-dominated Super Tuesday on March 1. If he can dominate there, he could cruise to the convention.
Cruz’s political assets include his abilities as a “polished speaker known for being relentlessly on-message,” with a solid fundraising base, decent polling numbers, and a solid position for appealing to the constituencies of other candidates as they drop out. The sharp observer will note Cruz made a point of reaching out to several other candidates during the debate, including Senator Rand Paul, who was once seen as Cruz’s fierce rival for the libertarian-conservative vote. Cruz has open lines of communication to every other constituency in the race.
Those factors combine to make Cruz far better positioned to bide his time and wait for an opening than, say, Jeb Bush was. Conventional wisdom said Bush’s money and Establishment support would carry him through the populist tsunami and allow him to build a winning campaign next year, but Cruz had a better sense of how to remain engaged and interesting while awaiting his moment.
Vox thinks the race will ultimately shake out to Rubio vs. Cruz, acknowledging his big “moment” of smacking down the biased CNBC debate moderators. “Stylistically, Cruz performed strongly for the rest of the debate too — he didn’t seem too angry, and even cracked a few jokes,” Vox notes.
“Ted Cruz is running the best campaign of the any of the 19 people seeking the presidency,” judged Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post, going into great detail on the reasons why, from a well-timed campaign launch and terrific fundraising to his message discipline and debate skills. Unlike some analysts, Cillizza doesn’t seem to think Cruz dropped the ball by remaining curiously subdued during the first two debates – instead, he was doing “just enough” to stay in the game, and wait for less crowded debates, when he’ll have more time to employ his formidable rhetorical skills.
Betsy Woodruff at the Daily Beast proclaims Cruz in possession of “Jedi debate skills,” trading an opportunity to criticize the debt limit deal (which he ended up talking about later anyway) for a far more valuable opportunity to attack the moral stature of the debate moderators, and the liberal media they represented. Woodruff notes that Cruz’s show-stopping slam at the debate moderators generated the most social-media buzz of the evening, while Cruz went on to collect more social-media mentions than any of the other candidates.
Even Kevin Drum at Mother Jones noticed the media consensus that Cruz won the debate, although of course he has no idea why.
The cynic may wonder if some of this approbation for Ted Cruz is an effort to stir the campaign pot by hyping that Rubio-Cruz showdown, or weaken Rubio (who many in the media think remains vulnerable to the attack on his Senate voting record, despite Jeb Bush’s devastating failure to make something of it on stage.) Maybe they want to put down some markers so that if Cruz takes another big crowd-pleasing swipe at the press, they can point at all the nice things that have been said about him. There will always be those who suspect that when the media says nice things about a Republican candidate during the primary, it’s because they think he or she would be easier to beat in the general election; there are people on the Left who harbor the same suspicion when analysts from the Right salute a Democrat candidate.
The optimistic view is that Cruz really did impress observers across the media spectrum during the debate, and by running a tight campaign ship, in a season when other promising campaigns have imploded… or veteran analysts are struggling to understand what the campaign’s strategy is. The Cruz crew has a detailed map charting the course to Iowa and beyond, which is more than most of the other Republican contenders can say, even some of those doing well in the polls. For people on the Left, glib assurances that Cruz is too extreme or unprepared to compete in the general election, or even survive the GOP primary, are no longer convincing.