Should Republicans nominate Ted Cruz, who has kept his options open with frequent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire? In some ways, Cruz and Warren are mirror images, and the cases for and against them are surprisingly similar. But there are also some critical differences.
Before 2008, the idea of a presidential contest between two first-term Senators in their (by then) fourth year in Washington would have seemed ridiculous; in 1988, Dan Quayle was roundly mocked for his youth and inexperience after twelve years in Congress, including eight in the Senate. But just as the defeat of Robert Bork and the subsequent confirmation of David Souter led to the rise of the conventional wisdom that a Supreme Court nominee should be a “stealth” candidate with a minimal paper trail, the election of Barack Obama in his fourth year in the Senate suggested the electoral advantages of running a candidate with as thin a record as possible, who could serve as an empty vessel into which voters could pour their aspirations.
While partisans on both sides would gag at the comparison, in some ways, Cruz and Warren are a lot alike. Both ran their first campaign for public office in 2012 (although Cruz had begun mounting a campaign to run for Texas Attorney General in 2010 before Greg Abbott decided to run for re-election), and won in the state that best emblemizes their party’s ideological base. Both seem at times like walking regional/ideologiocal stereotypes, Warren a professorial type from Boston academia, Cruz with his Texas cowboy boots and swagger, despite the fact that Warren is from Oklahoma, Cruz was born in Canada, and both pursued their higher education in New Jersey.
Both are obviously highly intelligent and Harvard Law pedigreed – Cruz was on the Law Review, clerked on the Supreme Court and had been a national debate champion in college, and has argued nine Supreme Court cases; Warren was a nationally respected bankruptcy law professor at HLS and was herself a statewide high school debate champion. Yet, both rely heavily on populist appeal rather than Paul Ryan-style wonkery. Both have one of the surest signs of intellect and one of the most useful skills in politics and lawyering, the ability to boil down complex issues to explain them in simple terms. Warren, of course, can be fantastically misleading when doing this, most famously when comparing the interest rates paid by banks on loans that are repaid overnight and rarely default to the rates paid by college students on loans that may extend 10 to 30 years and default frequently, an analogy no honest adult could defend. But then, Cruz’s critics have their own list of favorite soundbites they don’t like; both are seen by their party’s grassroots base as rare principled truth-tellers, and by the opposing party as dangerous charlatans or worse. Both have proven to be successful grassroots fundraisers, although Cruz has been less consistent at political moneymaking than Warren. Both are much in demand by campaigns looking to fire up their party’s base, and would run fiery campaigns that grow their party’s base at the risk of turning off moderates. Both are eloquent and forceful speakers, but neither is particularly warm, charming or likeable in the way that we usually associate with winning national candidates. Both broke the usual mode of cautious and deferential new Senators, making an immediate splash in Washington. Both would be history-making candidates – Warren the first woman to be a national party presidential nominee, Cruz the first Hispanic nominee.
For all the similarities, however, there are some important distinctions between how Cruz and Warren are situated.
1. Cruz has a stronger electoral record. Both Warren and Cruz have yet to prove they could win anything outside the most favorable possible conditions – a polarizing national election deep in favorable territory, Warren in Massachusetts, Cruz in Texas. But there’s two difference. First, Cruz ran a lot closer to the national ticket. Mitt Romney carried Texas by 15.8 points, earning 57.13% of the vote; Cruz also won by 15.8 points, with 56.46% of the vote. For all intents and purposes, Cruz ran even with Romney in Texas. But (while we do not have exit polls) he may have had a somewhat different coalition: a Latino Decisions pre-election poll found Cruz drawing 35% of the Hispanic vote against 65% for his opponent Paul Sadler, compared to 29% for Romney and 70% for Obama. By contrast, while Obama won Massachusetts by a whopping 23.2 points, with 60.67% of the vote, Warren won only by 7.6 points, with 53.74% of the vote. There are too few Hispanics in Massachusetts to be picked up in the exit poll (4% according to the exits), but the Latino Decisions poll (which, I should note, had Hispanics as 5.9% of the vote) showed Warren running only a little behind Obama, winning them 86-14 to Obama’s 89-9. But other demographic groups were a different story. Obama won men in Massachusetts 55-43, Warren lost them 53-47. Obama won 73% of voters under 30, Warren 61%; Obama also won 56% of voters age 30-44, Warren lost them 55-45. Obama won 92% of the black vote, Warren 86%. Obama, who was routed with white voters nationally, won them in Massachusetts 57-42, including white men 50-48 and white women 63-37. Warren lost white voters 51-49, losing white men 50-42 and winning white women 55-45. Obama won self-described moderates 55-43 and independents (another group he lost nationally) 52-45; Warren lost both, moderates 55-45 and independents by a lopsided 59-41. Obama won suburbanites 57-42, Warren lost them 51-49. While maps can be misleading due to the urban concentration of Democratic voters, you can see that Cruz carried a much broader cross-section of his own, much larger and more diverse state (Cruz got 4.4 million votes compared to Warren’s 1.7):
Now, there are extenuating circumstances here. Warren was running against a moderate, well-funded, personally popular incumbent, Scott Brown, a famously talented retail politician; Cruz’s opponent, former State Rep. Paul Sadler, was basically an underfunded punching bag. So Warren’s race was much more contested than Cruz’s or than the presidential race in either state. That is reflected in voter turnout: 72.9% of registered voters voted in Massachusetts in 2012, compared to an average of 70.5% over the prior three general elections, whereas only 58.6% of registered voters voted in Texas in 2012 compared to an average of 66.4% over the prior three general elections.
And while Mitt Romney was a hometown candidate and former Governor of Massachusetts, politically and culturally much closer to the typical Massachusetts Republican than Obama to the typical Texas Democrat (in 2008, Obama lost the primaries in both Massachusetts and Texas), Romney’s popularity in the state was pretty bad by 2012 (the exit poll had his favorability at 40-59) after the national campaign and the acrimonious New Hampshire primaries of 2008 and 2012. That helps explain why Obama beat Romney with demographic groups in Massachusetts (white men, white women, independents, suburbanites) that Obama was losing, badly, in most of the battleground states and nationally.
We do, however, have one piece of additional evidence of Cruz’s ability that we don’t have with Warren: his record in a hotly contested primary. Warren cruised to the nomination, which is a show of her strength in scaring off challengers but also means her ability to win a primary race is untested. Cruz, by contrast, won a major upset against a deeply entrenched member of the Texas GOP establishment, longtime Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst (Cruz finished second in a crowded primary, 44% to 34%, but won 56.8% against Dewhurst in the runoff).
In the final analysis, neither Cruz nor Warren has proven they could appeal to anything like the swing voters of Ohio, Florida, and other purple states. But Cruz has at least shown that he can win a hard-fought primary and run even with his party’s national ticket on friendly turf. Warren has yet to do even that much.
2. Warren has to beat Hillary. The proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the 2016 presidential race is Hillary Clinton. Hillary is beatable, in theory, in a primary; after all, she lost to Obama in 2008. But in reality, her massive name recognition and fundraising prowess starts her off in a much stronger polling position than in 2008, and her presence alone may deter Warren from running (and already influenced Warren to sign a letter encouraging Hillary to run). Moreover, Warren would face a serious demographic challenge. Obama’s 2008 victory over Hillary required a two-pronged assault on her coalition: one prong was anti-war white liberals who carried Obama to wins in the caucuses and states in the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest, and the other was an overwhelming, 90%+ majority among black voters (see, e.g., here, here, and here), who allowed Obama to sweep the South (in most Southern states, black voters are a majority of the Democratic primary electorate, and Obama swept Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, DC and Delaware).
Warren, running more on economic populism (e.g., Hillary’s six years on the Board of Directors of Wal-Mart) than Hillary’s support for the Iraq War or Hillary’s opposition before 2013 to same-sex marriage, is one of the few Democrats with the fundraising ability and ideological footprint to replicate the first part of Obama’s primary coalition, and her gender neutralizes Hillary’s most potent weapon. But there is no reason to believe that she could reconstruct the monolithic black support that was decisive for Obama. That would leave Warren needing to make a frontal assault on Hillary’s existing base, a much tougher challenge than consolidating the support of people who are not already locked in.
By contrast, Cruz faces an open field, the most open Republican field in the modern primary system and really comparable only to prior Democratic fields (1976, 1988, 1992, to some extent 2004) that lacked any kind of frontrunner. Few national polls these days put anybody above 15% support, much less 20%, and the leaders are often people with big name recognition who are not that likely to run (Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney) or face a natural ceiling on their appeal (Rand Paul). The moderate/”Establishment” wing of the party has yet to consolidate behind one candidate, having gotten the jitters over Chris Christie after Bridgegate. That hardly guarantees victory for Cruz, as the GOP has an embarrassment of riches in terms of Governors and Senators who could run and be appealing candidates in different ways. But it’s precisely the kind of open field in which a strong ideological figure could emerge victorious despite a lack of the traditional resume Republicans ordinarily expect.
3. Cruz is much younger. Warren, like Hillary and Romney, is a child of the 1940s; Cruz is a child of the 1970s. If you compare them to the roster of Republicans who might be in the Presidential or Vice Presidential mix (by design, this is an overinclusive list), both Warren and Hillary stick out as an older crowd:
Even in the primaries, that means yet another way in which Warren will struggle to distinguish herself from Hillary to win the favor of the Democrats’ youth-obsessed electorate, which fell for Obama partly because of his relative youth and ‘coolness.’ It also means there’s a greater urgency to Warren’s decision – if she doesn’t run in 2016, she probably never will (we’ve never elected a non-incumbent who was over 70, and the two over-70 nominees, John McCain and Bob Dole, were constantly dogged by the age issue), whereas Cruz could easily stay in the Senate and run a decade or two from now.
In a general election, age may not be a disabling factor but it is likely to play in a way that provides a favorable contrast for the Republican nominee (if it’s Cruz or one of the other fortysomethings) against Warren, just as it would against Hillary. Only two Presidents were over 65 when they entered office (Reagan and William Henry Harrison, and Harrison died a month into his term), and the dependence of the Democrats on younger voters will be tested if their candidate is 20-25 years older than the Republican.
4. Cruz is building a foreign policy profile. Americans are focused on domestic policy issues these days, and the 2014 election, like 2012 and 2010, will be dominated by domestic issues. But Americans still expect their President to be up to the role of Commander-in-Chief, and in an increasingly dangerous and unstable world beset with regional crises, foreign policy may be harder to avoid in 2016.
Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, has put a lot of effort into building a profile on foreign policy. His most famous Supreme Court fight as Texas Solicitor General was over the International Court of Justice’s treaty authority to reopen U.S. death sentences handed down to Mexican nationals, a subject he returned to earlier this year with an essay in the Harvard Law Review on the limits of the treaty power. He joined with Rand Paul in early 2013 in a high-profile fight against drone strikes against U.S. citizens, but has subsequently broken with Senator Paul over the future direction of U.S. foreign policy, and made a point of giving foreign policy speeches at conservative events. Cruz has traveled extensively – to South Africa for the Mandela memorial service, to Israel to show support for a key U.S. ally, to Ukraine, to Poland and Estonia to criticize Vladimir Putin. Cruz’s list of Senate committee assignments includes a who’s who of committees focused on national security, border security, public safety, technology and American power:
Committee on Armed Services (Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, Subcommittee on Seapower)
Committee on the Judiciary (Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights (Ranking Member), Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security)
Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security, Subcommittee on Science and Space (Ranking Member))
Warren, by contrast, serves on the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and the Special Committee on Aging (on which Cruz also sits; Cruz is also on the Rules Committee). The Washington Post noted in December that Warren “has done nothing, for example, to curry favor in early primary states or to build her foreign policy credentials by traveling abroad.” This stands in stark contrast to Obama, who built his campaign around opposition to the Iraq War. Her statement of “Eleven Commandments” that progressives stand for in today’s Netroots Nation speech is conspicuously silent on foreign affairs or national security; the closest she comes to the border is the bland assertion that ” immigration has made this country strong and vibrant, and that means reform.” Warren often evades foreign policy questions; witness this video from yesterday of her literally running away from a question about Israel and Gaza:
5. The Fauxohontas Factor: Warren and Cruz will each give the other party huge amounts of ideological ammunition, but comparatively little biographical ammunition. The one exception is the furor over whether the pasty-white Warren – who claims to have some small amount of Cherokee blood and on this basis was touted by Harvard Law School as a “diverse” faculty member – improperly took advantage of affirmative action preferences not meant for white people. Pundits generally assume that this controversy was beaten to death because it didn’t stop Warren from winning in 2012, but as noted above, that race left Warren running far behind the national Democratic ticket, and as Mike Dukakis, John Kerry and Mitt Romney can tell you, what works in Massachusetts may not always work nationally. And the fake-Indian issue could be surprisingly potent in a campaign against an actual son of a Cuban immigrant.
6. Warren has to play ball with Obama: The final factor here is structural. Cruz can more or less draw up his own path right now: his party doesn’t control the White House, it doesn’t (for now, at least) control the Senate, and Cruz is so often at loggerheads with party leadership that there is no real concern that he will be locked into votes he doesn’t want just out of being a loyal soldier. That’s not all good – he also carries the baggage of a lot of people blaming him for the 2013 government shutdown – but it means his mistakes will be his own.
Warren, by contrast, would inevitably have to run with eight years of Obama’s foreign policy and economic baggage, and the early signs are that she lacks Cruz’s stomach to buck party leadership. One of the signature anti-corporate-welfare fights Cruz has been leading lately is his crusade against the Export-Import Bank; Warren just came out in support of the Obama Administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in favor of re-authorizing the Ex-Im Bank. That may well be a decision popular with major donors, and even a decision publicly defensible as a pro-business, pro-growth posture (the grounds cited by Warren), but it inevitably muddies her populist message whenever she sides with the current power structure out of party loyalty. It is always hard to square populist revolt with “four more years of the same” and not discomfiting the comfortable on your own side.
So…will Cruz run in 2016? Will Warren? Should they? Certainly both can have an impact on the policy debate within their own party by running, and Warren in particular could have a much larger impact if she runs than if she tries to play kingmaker/queenmaker in an effectively uncontested race. And it would be foolhardy to count either of them out, as a potential nominee or a potential President. That said, for all her weaknesses, it is still hard to argue with the idea that if Hillary Clinton wants the nomination, she will get it and should get it as the strongest Democratic candidate in 2016 – not Warren. The case for Republicans running someone other than Cruz is more arguable, given the large number of other options (personally, while I like Cruz a lot and admire his principled and pugnacious conservatism, I prefer a Governor like Bobby Jindal or Scott Walker, for a lot of reasons), and that is what primaries are for – but there is little question that Cruz would be, like Warren, the most polarizing candidate the party could choose.