Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How Do You Attack Ted Cruz in a Republican Primary?

A month or two ago, Marco Rubio became the hot, in-the-know pick to win the Republican presidential nomination. This week, it's Ted Cruz's turn to graduate from also-ran to leading contender in the collective judgment of the news media. He seems to be rising in the Iowa polls, apparently at the expense of Ben Carson, and a number of analysts have started to take him seriously as a potential nominee (see Jamelle Bouie in Slate, Paul Waldman in the Washington Post, Rich Lowry of the National Review in Politico, and Andrew Romano at Yahoo News). As I explained last week, Cruz probably needs a strong Iowa performance in order to have a shot at the nomination, which makes his rise in Iowa particularly welcome news for his presidential ambitions.

These analyses do a good job of cataloguing Cruz's various political and organizational strengths. One of his most formidable assets in a riled-up Republican Party is a well-cultivated reputation as the purest of the pure conservatives. Most of Cruz's energy since landing in Washington has been devoted to creating rhetorical and procedural mayhem, incessantly charging the leadership of his own party with ideological infidelity and political cowardice in the face of the Obama-led Democrats.

For Cruz's rivals, his current bump in the polls presents an unusual challenge. Some Republican elites, and undoubtedly most of the party's strategists and consultants, view Cruz as too conservative or too divisive to win a general election, but many other Republicans deny the existence of a tradeoff between ideological purity and electability. (After all, didn't conservative hero Ronald Reagan win two national landslides?) The most common go-to move in Republican nomination politics is to attack your opponent for being insufficiently, not excessively, loyal to the conservative cause. But that's a difficult charge to make stick in this case, given Cruz's persona and record in office.

This Politico article about an anti-Cruz ad run by a 501(c)4 aligned with Rubio suggests that Cruz's opponents may try anyway. The Rubio backer funding the ad campaign, a man named Sean Noble, explains to reporters that he views Cruz as unelectable, presumably because of Cruz's hard-line, confrontational style of politics. But this argument is not contained in the ad itself, which instead attacks Cruz for voting to restrict bulk data collection by the NSA and therefore "leading from behind" in the war on terror à la the hated Barack Obama. In today's Republican Party, apparently, even Ted Cruz will be forced to answer to the charge that he is just not conservative enough.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Iowa: The Cruz-cial State

(I'm sorry about the headline. Well, a little bit sorry. Maybe.)

Politico reports today on the efforts of the Cruz campaign to build a strong organizational infrastructure in Iowa, drawing heavily on existing networks of evangelical Christian churches, leaders, and activists. With Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal now out of the race, and with Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee—who each rode strong support among Iowa social conservatives to victory in 2012 and 2008, respectively—struggling to break through this time, the Cruz campaign recognizes an opportunity to consolidate the evangelical vote behind its candidate. Ben Carson is a current favorite of many Iowa evangelicals, but Cruz is hoping that Carson's campaign will fade as the caucuses approach, and that his relative lack of organization on the ground in Iowa will prevent him from turning out his vote effectively.

Cruz is being smart here. Aside from the aforementioned Huckabee and Santorum (who don't appear viable in any event), no other current Republican candidate needs to do well in Iowa as much as Cruz does. Cruz's brand of aggressively conservative politics, with a strong emphasis on social traditionalism, is not a natural fit for the non-evangelical, relatively secular New Hampshire Republican electorate—the article reports that he is forming a "national prayer team," for example, which I don't recall the Romney or McCain campaigns doing—and the New Hampshire primary is thus one of the biggest obstacles standing between Cruz and the nomination. Huckabee and Santorum, like Pat Robertson before them, exceeded expectations in past years by performing well among the evangelicals of Iowa, only to stall out once competition shifted to the very different political culture of the Granite State.

Cruz has advantages that these other candidates lacked—he is less reliant on social conservatism as the primary basis of his popular appeal, and he will undoubtedly be better funded, better prepared, and better organized—but it is hard to see how he runs strongly in New Hampshire unless he does very well in Iowa, and if he doesn't do well in either state, history suggests that he has little shot at the nomination. His main rivals—Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich, and even Trump—could all conceivably bounce back in New Hampshire after a loss in Iowa, but a bad night for Cruz in Iowa would severely, perhaps fatally, damage his campaign. Thus Cruz is right to invest heavily in Iowa; it's a crucial test of his presidential chances.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why Ted Cruz Wants to Fight Barack Obama

While overseas at an international summit, Barack Obama made some dismissive remarks yesterday about Republican presidential candidates' positions on the admittance of Syrian refugees to the United States in response to the Paris terrorist attacks. "Apparently they're scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion," Obama said. "At first they were worried about the press being too tough on them in during debates. Now they're worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn't sound very tough to me."

Obama was clearly referring to multiple Republicans; if his remarks responded to any particular candidate, it was Chris Christie, who had earlier explicitly ruled out accepting "orphans under the age of five" for resettlement in America. Today, however, it was Ted Cruz who acted as if Obama had attacked him personally. "Mr. President, if you want to insult me, you can do it overseas, you can do it in Turkey, you can do it in foreign countries," Cruz said. "But I would encourage you, Mr. President, [to] come back and insult me to my face."

It seems clear from his statement that Cruz was ready to jump on any opportunity to start a fight with Obama, even if Obama had failed to do him the favor of mentioning him specifically. I have previously suggested that the popularity of Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the current Republican nomination race is a reflection of the formidable power of anti-Obamaism in the contemporary GOP. Cruz's potential path to the nomination almost certainly requires attracting a significant fraction of the Republican vote that is currently parked behind Trump and Carson, so it is in his particular interest to distinguish himself as an Obama antagonist in order to appeal to those voters if and when the Trump and Carson candidacies fade. 

Of course, Cruz has not exactly been complimentary of Obama before today, but most of his energy since entering national politics has been devoted to fighting other Republicans, not Democrats. It will be interesting to see if today's remarks represent a larger shift in campaign strategy, with Cruz attempting to claim the mantle of the party's most anti-Obama candidate. If Obama wants to increase the probability that Cruz wins the Republican nomination, next time he'll attack the senator by name.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

An Unusual Governor's Race in Louisiana

I direct the attention of anyone entertained by political spectacle to the Louisiana governor's race, where the Republican candidate, U.S. Senator David Vitter, has struggled to untangle himself from his implication in a prostitution scandal a few years back. His Democratic opponent John Bel Edwards has not erred on the side of subtlety in attacking Vitter, who is charged in this ad with literally choosing "prostitutes over patriots":

But now Vitter is counter-attacking, accusing Edwards of skipping a debate over family values in order to party at a "risqué club":

On Saturday, Louisiana voters will render their judgment on this critical referendum.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Democratic Debate Recap: Sometimes, Nothing Much Happens

The relatively uneventful Democratic presidential debate on Saturday night, occurring amidst a relatively uneventful Democratic presidential nomination contest, left political analysts with a limited supply of hooks upon which to hang their post-game stories. The New York Times account reported that Hillary Clinton was "pummeled" by Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, but if so, it was the most polite political pummeling in history. While Clinton was indeed a target of criticism—naturally so, given her front-runner status—none of it was particularly unexpected or harsh. If anything could interrupt Clinton's march to the nomination, it is unlikely to be an attack from either of her rivals on the debate stage.

Scrounging for a larger relevance to the event, several purveyors of Washington wisdom have suggested that Clinton made some remarks that might haunt her in a general election, including her invocation of 9/11 in response to the charge from Sanders that she is a captive of Wall Street, as well as her expression of sympathy with today's student protestors by noting that she was a child of the 1960s. But it's difficult to imagine either statement having much resonance a month from now, much less a year from now. The Republican Party, unlike Bernie Sanders, is not likely to attack Clinton for being too cozy with the financial industry, and any explicit suggestion that she is too old to be president is certain to backfire. In truth, this debate will come and go without leaving a lasting effect on either the nomination or the general election, and there's no dishonor in saying so.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Dear Conservative Media: Please Destroy Trump and Carson. Love, the Republican Leadership.

This Washington Post article on the state of the Republican race from the "insider" perspective has attracted considerable comment over the past two days. It offers a portrait of nervousness, bordering on panic, among the Republican "establishment" (meaning veteran elected officials, consultants, and fundraisers) about the tenacious polling leads held by Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who are seen as potentially disastrous candidates for the party, if not the entire country:

“We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job,” [an anonymous] strategist said. “It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”

The now-familiar trial balloon of a "draft Mitt Romney" campaign is floated once again, probably an exercise in wishful thinking by a Romney friend or two. (Paul Ryan would actually have been a much more logical candidate for such a last-minute rescue mission, had he not already performed an identical service for the House Republicans. Due to nettlesome constitutional restrictions, Ryan can only save his party in one branch of government at a time.)

The actual probability of a Trump or Carson nomination remains quite low, and the article reflects the fact that many politicos spend a lot of time obsessing about unlikely worst-case scenarios. But the piece does raise a legitimate question: if Trump and Carson are to lose their current perches atop the Republican presidential field, how will their current supporters be convinced to change their minds? With so many Republicans in the race, a serious collective-action problem exists (since any individual candidate launching attacks is likely to face some backlash for doing so, merely benefiting the other contenders). In addition, the "wise old men" of the Republican Party lack the credibility today among fervent conservatives to successfully make a case against the likes of Trump or Carson, which might only reinforce the claims of the outsider candidates that they are being persecuted by an ideologically co-opted Republican "establishment."

The solution to this problem is clear enough: conservative authorities whom Republican voters trust need to explain to them that Trump and Carson are bad news for the party. Since few Republican elected officials currently attract such trust among a suspicious party base, the obvious answer lies elsewhere, among the ranks of prominent conservative figures in the news media. Because conservative media served as the launchpad for the Trump and Carson candidacies in the first place, this is not a guaranteed outcome—thus explaining the nervousness among the Post's interviewees. But as the primaries draw closer, it is very likely that the coverage of Trump and Carson in the right-of-center media becomes increasingly skeptical, reflecting many conservative elites' aversion to the political risk that either man's actual nomination would create.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Post-Debate Analysis at the Monkey Cage

I have a piece up at the Monkey Cage today, explaining why some Republican candidates bashed Hillary Clinton more than others in last night's pair of debates.