Obama Veterans Laugh at the Idea That Ted Cruz Can Copy Their Formula

Barack Obama's win may have opened the door for greenhorn candidates, but it's a small door.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) addresses the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) February 26, 2015 in National Harbor, Maryland.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The specter of Barack Obama is haunting Ted Cruz.

"The success of Obama—at the ballot box, at least, in 2008 and 2012—is helping to fuel the aspirations of Cruz and other Republican hopefuls in the opening chapter of this campaign," wrote Jeff Zeleny in a CNN analysis of the Texas Senator's presidential campaign launch. When Politico's Manu Raju asked Texas Senator John Cornyn if two years in the Senate was too skimpy for a presidential candidate, Cornyn asked if he was "talking about Barack Obama." On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer subtly yet brutally reminded a panel that "we already tried a first term Senator."

The Obama/Cruz Venn diagram actually predates Cruz's election to the Senate, and it's hard to dismiss it outright. Both men born to American mothers and to fathers who had to win their way into the United States. They graduated from Harvard Law, taking drawers full of compliments into their political careers. They won megastate Senate seats in otherwise grim years for their party. They ran for president only two years into six-year terms.

The people who elected Obama to the presidency think that the comparison is pat, simple, and wrong. It's not even that they shudder at the thought that their Frankenstein lab will launch young, biracial, Republican election-winners. They just don't see the comparison.

"Cruz has an entirely different theory than Obama did in 2008," says David Axelrod, the president's political adviser in his 2004 Senate race and two presidential bids. "Obama's message was that the values and concerns that unite us are greater than the things that divide us. It was predicated on the idea that even as we disagreed on some things, we could find common ground on which we could work together. And his record as a legislator of working across party lines was validation of the message."

The contrast with Cruz says everything about how Cruz's theory of victory differs from the Democrats theory—and, yes, how Obama lowered the work requirements for national candidates. Obama's 2008 campaign worried from the outset about its candidate looking like a young man in a hurry. "I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness—a certain audacity—to this announcement," Obama said at his February 2007 campaign launch. "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."

Cruz, at Liberty University, made no such a mea culpa. At no point in his announcement speech did he actually mention that he was a United States senator. He only referenced the city he raised $15 million get to by way of saying that real change "will not come from Washington." And in his launch day interviews, even in an hour-long Fox News sit-down, the experience question never came up. In Cruz's circle, there's just no question that a career as solicitor general then senator from Texas gets him over the experience hump.

"I’m not sure I agree with the premise," says Rick Tyler, a spokesman for Cruz's campaign. "I’ve heard this lots of times. Although I don’t like it, and conservatives don’t like it, which part of his experience are we questioning with Obama? He got Obamacare done, and we didn’t like it. Did he achieve that because of his inexperience? I don't think so. Did he get it because he’s ineffective? We might not like it, it's been a disaster, but he’s delivered on his agenda. As far as I can tell he’s been running rings around Republican leaders."

Like Cruz, Obama entered a Senate that was controlled by the other party, and by a 55-45 margin. Like Cruz, the vanishing of more experienced senators freed up staffers who could take him national. Obama snapped up Pete Rouse, Daschle's former chief of staff; Cruz gave that job to Chip Roy, who had Senate experience but had also written a Rick Perry policy book full of libertarian policy stands that wounded his campaign. When South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint quit to run the Heritage Foundation, Cruz hired away his communications director Amanda Carpenter, a Twitter-savvy former conservative journalist.

In the Senate, Obama looked for ways to balance his liberal votes with bipartisan bills and Republican friends. With Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a fellow freshman (albeit one who'd done three terms in the House), he passed a "google-for-government" spending transparency bill. He sidled up to Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and joined him on a trip to Russia that resulted in an arms-securing bill.

"He was the junior member on the committee," recalls former Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican who lost his seat in a 2012 Tea Party primary. "That meant in each of our hearings, it might be a couple of hours before we got to Obama. I admired from the start that he at least waited out the hearings and listened." 

From the outset, Obama's team used the Coburn and Lugar bills in an elevator pitch for skeptical voters. "Experience was always part of the message," says Jon Favreau, Obama's speechwriter in the 2008 bid and through much of his first term. "It’s funny to think about this, but Dick Lugar wound up in our announcement speech. To this day I laugh about that—Dick Lugar was the only other living politician mentioned in Springfield! That bill was a big deal, and ethics reform was a big deal."

When Obama hit Iowa, when he debuted his Axelrod-produced campaign ads, Lugar and Coburn were part of the story. Neither Republican was particularly fond of being a campaign prop, but they didn't beg Obama to stop. In one debate, while deflecting a question about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama assured voters that he got his economic advice from Warren Buffett and his foreign policy counsel from Lugar.

"I said, 'Oh, my!'" Lugar remembers. "I appreciated that he was in a debate, and at the same time, I appreciated that some of my republican colleagues were not going to be appreciative of that. But I was honored he would make that association."

"There was a credentialing process," says Tommy Vietor, Obama's communications director for Iowa during the caucuses. "He was an Illinois state senator, and no one would argue that in and of itself was a qualification. But he was able to get things done, that was able to let us tell a story about going across the aisle to work with people."

Cruz's approach to "credentialing" couldn't be more different. Since last summer, he's generally given his audiences a rundown of "conservative victories" during his Senate career—few of which involved Democrats, and a few of which were not, in a literal sense, victories. He'll credit the grassroots of the GOP with helping him filibuster gun safety legislation, and with "the fight" to defund the ACA. Republicans won the 2014 midterms resoundingly; Cruz credits this to the government shutdown, which allegedly raised voter awareness of the ACA. Cruz occasionally tells audiences that he teamed with New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer to pass a bill that barred Iran's preferred ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, from entering the United States. It's a fun odd-couple story. It's also the story of the only bill Cruz has passed.

Cruz's team sees only upsides in his story. Conservative voters are not crying out for candidates who team up with Democrats. There are simply more conservatives than liberals in America; the Republican Party is run by conservative voters in a way that liberals still don't quite run the Democratic Party. Cruz, in this theory, is perfectly positioned to run a campaign against Washington.

"He could have signed his name to many counterproductive things Obama signed," says Rick Tyler of Cruz. "The measure of success isn’t how many bills were passed under a Democratically-controlled Senate, under a Democratic president."

The challenge for Cruz is that his opposition looks nothing like Obama's 2008 opposition. The Illinois senator's chief opponent was Hillary Clinton; five of the six other Democrats who got into the debates and the Iowa caucuses were members or former members of Congress. Only New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who never took off, could claim to be outside Washington, and he, too, had been a congressman. He didn't matter anyway: The Obama "credentialing" was designed to beat Clinton.

"We knew very early on that if we make the election about Obama's experience versus Hillary's, she was gonna kick our ass," says Favreau. "Our argument was that she had the wrong kind of experience, that we'd tried it before, that her experience led to making the wrong judgment in Iraq. The problem for Cruz is the rest of the field. If this was Cruz versus a bunch of Republicans who’d been in Washington forever it would be one thing. But he’s going to have a whole bunch of governors on the stage with him."

With the exception of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, whose surprise campaign is still a mystery to Republican strategists, none of the GOP's 2016 hopefuls have long experience in Washington. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, like Cruz, are first-term senators. Rick Santorum, whose support Cruz is trying to absorb as quickly as possible, has been out of office since 2006. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal spent a brief, resume-building stint in Congress, but he rarely mentions it. Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Mike Huckabee have spent no time in Washington; insurgent candidates John Bolton and Carly Fiorina have never won any elected office.

That means Cruz will have to fight for the mantle of "change" in a way that Obama never had to. And unlike Obama, he has few supporters in the Senate making his case over the other possible change-Washington contenders. Cornyn has declined to endorse his junior partner, and the presence of Rick Perry in the race gives him an out.

"There are too many Texans running," he explains. "I guess I should say: There are too few Texans running."

For now, Cruz's better-known skeptics aren't questioning his experience. "Anybody who wants to run can run," says John McCain, who made the experience argument against Obama throughout their 2008 race, and who has already endorsed Graham for 2016. "I'll let the voters judge their credentials."

New York Congressman Peter King, who is still considering his own quixotic 2016 presidential campaign, doesn't think a short Senate career is the biggest strike against Cruz. Rather, it's that the Texas senator and instigator of bicameral showdowns is a "phony" who can't be trusted.

"I would think that the Obama experience will hurt Cruz," said King, "but I wouldn't vote for Ted Cruz if he had 50 years of experience."

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