What Ted Cruz Really Wants

Ted Cruz
Patrick Michels
Ted Cruz

You’ve got to credit Ted Cruz: The man’s been in elected office less than a year, and he’s already a household name across the country.

With his Ivy League smarts, smarmy condescension and uncompromising ideology, he annoys liberals more than any national politician since perhaps George W. Bush. All of which has made him a hero on the right. He’s making poor Rick Perry seem like old news.

Love him or hate him, Cruz deserves respect for his meteoric rise in national politics. I mean, how many other freshman senators can you name? (Elizabeth Warren doesn’t count.) Up to this point, Cruz’s goal has been clear enough: publicity. He’s been manipulating the media, the grassroots and even his fellow senators to make a name for himself (crusty dolts like John McCain and Barbara Boxer have been especially useful.) At this, he’s proved wildly successful.

But now what? Cruz has made himself known as the tea party standard bearer, the man taking on Obamacare, the wacko bird from Texas. But where is all this leading? What’s his long game? What does Ted Cruz want?

1. He wants to be president.

This goes without saying. Deep down, all politicians in Washington want to be president, don’t they?

But realistically, Cruz isn’t acting like a man with his eye on the White House. He’s alienated Senate colleagues, and made a lot of partisan noise without accomplishing anything of substance. That’s not the profile of a winning presidential candidate. A senator who really wants to be president puts his or her head down, makes allies and passes some legislation with his or her name on it to highlight in a future national campaign. Obama and Hillary both followed that route. Surely Cruz knows this. And yet he’s pursued a scorched-earth approach that won’t look good in a general election.

2. He wants to win the GOP presidential nomination.

Cruz’s tactics may not play well with November voters, but he’s got a shot at the Republican nomination. It’s way too early to start forecasting 2016, but Cruz has certainly put himself in the conversation (he’s polling ahead of Perry among some GOP primary voters).

So maybe Cruz wants to go all Barry Goldwater: win the nomination and get crushed in the general election to further the cause of conservatism.

3. He wants to lead the tea party.

Perhaps he simply wants to be the new face of the tea party—Jim DeMint with charisma. The right-wing grassroots constantly grouse about how their elected leaders betray “conservative values” once in office. Perhaps Cruz is the man who will give national voice to right-wing populism—he used the word “elite” often in his 21-hour pseudo-filibuster—against the corporate leadership of the GOP.

Based on Cruz’s bio, you wouldn’t think him a populist. His establishment credentials are impeccable: Princeton and Harvard, corporate attorney, wife who works at Goldman Sachs. How can a man who, in law school, wouldn’t stoop to study with anyone from “minor Ivies like Penn and Brown” be considered a true populist? The mind reels.

4. There is no plan.

Perhaps there is no long game. Perhaps he’s stumbling forward taking advantage of whatever publicity opportunity arises, any chance to raise his profile and his issues. This seems the likeliest scenario. It certainly fits the facts.

But if Cruz doesn’t have a long game, he probably needs one. Cruz is dominating the national conversation right now. But the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” shtick is fleeting, and the backlash —from Democrats and, especially, fellow Republicans—has already begun.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 4:52 pm CST