Ted Cruz’s supporters like to imagine the Texas senator as the re-incarnation of Ronald Reagan — but in reality, he is more like the second coming of Barack Obama.
Cruz, who declared his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination Monday, often invokes Reagan in his speeches and his supporters usually lecture Cruz’s conservative critics that Reagan, too, was disdained by the so-called “Republican establishment” before he was elected president.
Perhaps all of Cruz’s right-of-center critics, myself included, fail to see the Reagan in their midst. Alternatively, perhaps Cruz isn’t very much like Reagan. Indeed, there is a strong case that Cruz is more like the current skipper than he is like the Gipper.
Superficially, the parallels between Obama and Cruz are obvious. Like Obama, Cruz announced his presidential candidacy only 2 years after being sworn into the Senate. They both were most noted for their speechmaking when they entered the presidential race. The two also have elite academic resumes — both earning an Ivy League undergraduate degree before getting their law degree from Harvard.
But the most significant parallel is that both Obama and Cruz seem more interested in the theater of politics than the unsatisfying nitty-gritty of convincing legislators to support their different political agendas.
Since becoming president, Obama has been unable to persuade Republicans to support nearly any of his major initiatives. Even the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward has knocked the president for his failure in dealing effectively with Congress.
“It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition. But presidents work their will — or should work their will — on important matters of national business,” Woodward wrote in “The Price of Politics,” his 2012 book. “Obama has not.”
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton famously were able to strike deals with their political opponents on significant issues. Even President George W. Bush was able to pass major pieces of legislation by reaching out to Democrats and convincing them to get onboard, at least at the beginning of his presidency.
Obama, in contrast, couldn’t get a single Republican vote in favor of his signature piece of legislation, Obamacare. He persuaded zero House Republicans and only three Republican senators (one of them, the late Arlen Specter, would later become a Democrat) to vote for his economic stimulus package. Fortunately for Obama, the Democrats controlled enough of Congress to push these pieces of legislation through without Republican support. But much of Obama’s agenda has stalled because he can’t persuade Republicans to team up with him on almost any significant cause — even causes where there should be some common ground.
You might chalk this up, as many have, to a militant obstructionism by Republicans, but as the New York Times reported in 2013, even people close to the president admit he has done a terrible job reaching out to Congress.
“The president’s associates, busy lately fielding questions of what took so long, readily acknowledge that Mr. Obama could have done more over the past divisive four years to wine, dine and simply engage the other side to reach bipartisan deals on a range of issues,” the paper noted in a story about Obama’s past failures to reach out to Congress. “They give multiple reasons for his reserve — personality, family commitments (6:30 dinner is said to be ‘sacrosanct’ most nights) and too little appreciation for the aura of the presidency.”
Though only a senator, Cruz seems to be in more of the Obama mold than in the Reagan mold in this regard. Take, for instance, the “Defund Obamacare” push in 2013. Cruz didn’t come up with the strategy, but he essentially became the face of the movement. The strategy to defeat Obamacare had essentially no chance of succeeding, but if there was to be a sliver of hope, Cruz had to first get the Republican caucus to stand together. Not only did Cruz fail to persuade any Democrats to support his effort, he failed to persuade large segments of the Republican caucus, including conservative stalwarts like former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn.
What’s worse is that, as far as I can tell, Cruz didn’t even try to coordinate with the Republican leadership. Cruz didn’t reach out to House Speaker John Boehner or then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to explain to them the strategy and try to convince them of the wisdom of it. He merely campaigned for defunding Obamacare through speeches to party activists and interviews on television.
That’s the leadership of a politician who is more comfortable speechifying than doing the hard work of leading, the hard work of convincing his fellow colleagues of why his “Defund Obamacare” strategy was worth pursuing in one-on-one meetings. Reagan was great at giving speeches — often ones that were very ideological, in the best sense of the word — but he also knew he had to court legislators in order to get significant parts of his legislative agenda enacted into law. Cruz seems more interested in giving dramatic speeches to the conservative base.
True, Cruz probably couldn’t have convinced congressional leadership to support his “Defund Obamacare” campaign, largely because most understood that there was virtually no chance of it succeeding. But his failure to even try demonstrates that a Cruz presidential administration probably wouldn’t be particularly successful in pushing its agenda through Congress — that is, unless Congress somehow became filled with Ted Cruz clones.
So while Cruz may relish comparisons to Reagan, comparisons to the current president seem far more apt.