2016 Elections

Ted Cruz Has the Mainstream in His Sights

Can the Texan spread his (right) wing?

Lights. Camera . . .

Photographer: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Want to know how optimistic Senator Ted Cruz is feeling right now? He's pivoting away from the primary to the general election two months before the first Republican caucuses. For a guy who not long ago seemed to be angling for table scraps from Donald Trump, that's an impressive display of confidence.

Cruz isn't actually getting ahead of himself; he's getting in position. From shutting down the government just because to frying "machine-gun bacon" to appeal to guys who treat military-grade weaponry as toys, Cruz has gone to great lengths to own the persona of right-wing ideologue. Having invested much in the endeavor, and having witnessed his reward in the form of rising poll numbers in Iowa, he won't abandon his sunk costs.

The nature of right-wing politics means he won't necessarily have to; Cruz may be able to maintain his fringe bona fides largely through affect. This week, speaking to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Cruz cited a "simple and undeniable fact: The overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats." For bonus points, Cruz added: "The media doesn't report that."

His comments were the kind of taunts that can help Cruz hold down the right flank as he expands into less ideologically reflexive territory. And he is beginning to move.

In an interview this week with Bloomberg's Sahil Kapur, Cruz charted a nuanced path on foreign intervention in the Middle East, clearly distancing himself from his party's vocal "bomb 'em" caucus, including rival Marco Rubio, while steering clear of Rand Paul's neo-isolationism. In a classic campaign maneuver, he tied Rubio's interventionist instincts on Libya and Syria to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- sinking all three with one rhetorical anchor.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, MSNBC's Kasie Hunt repeatedly asked Cruz whether a path to legal status for immigrants would constitute "amnesty," the all-purpose aspersion that restrictionists cast on anything resembling a viable immigration plan. Cruz, who recently secured the endorsement of Representative Steve King of Iowa, the public face of the GOP's immigrant-bashing wing, has been attacking Rubio for promoting amnesty. He has also promised an "increase" in deportations under a Cruz administration.

Yet in Iowa, Cruz made heroic efforts to ignore the reporter's pleas, scampering away without committing himself. If he can manage to keep the issue muddled and unresolved, Cruz might eventually be able to support a path to legalization -- citizenship will likely remain too far a reach -- after he has consolidated right-wing support.  In any case, his determined evasion is indicative of a man with a general election on his mind.

These developments presage the Princeton and Harvard Law School graduate's eventual evolution from the cartoon character he has so carefully assembled into something more closely resembling a viable presidential candidate.

Cruz is still loathed by many in his party. And he has a trail of dubious comments and behavior to live down. But at the third Republican debate, in October, Cruz showed himself capable of broadly appealing rhetoric.

Well, we’ve gotta turn the economy around for people who are struggling. The Democrats’ answer to everything is more government control over wages, and more empowering trial lawyers to file lawsuits. You know, you look at women working. I’ll tell you, in my family there are a lot of single moms in my family. My sister was a single mom, both of my aunts were single moms. My mom, who’s here today, was a single mom when my father left us when I was 3 years old.

Now, thank God, my father was invited to a Bible study and became born again and he came back to my mom and me and we were raised together. But I -- the struggle of single moms is extraordinary. And, you know, when you see Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and all the Democrats talking about wanting to address the plight of working women, not a one of them mentioned the fact that under Barack Obama, 3.7 million women have entered poverty.

Not a one of them mentioned the fact that under Barack Obama and the big government economy, the median wage for women has dropped $733. The truth of the matter is, big government benefits the wealthy, it benefits the lobbyists, it benefits the giant corporations. And the people who are getting hammered are small businesses, it’s single moms, it’s Hispanics. That is who I’m fighting for. The people that Washington leaves behind.

Cruz's talking point was inaccurate -- the median wage for women has increased a small amount under Obama. That aside, his spiel was aimed right down the center of the electorate.

Cruz is well-funded in a primary field in which every viable candidate has a problem, from Rubio's support of immigration reform to Bush's dynastic baggage. For months, Cruz has assiduously positioned himself to collect voters who abandon Ben Carson or Donald Trump. Now, he's preparing to move into new territory, and prove to doubters that he can. Watch out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.