Over the last week, the political world has been abuzz over a quite unanticipated turn of events: the return of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Speaking to donors on Jan. 9, the failed two-time presidential candidate finally admitted that he's mulling a third shot at the White House, vaulting himself to the forefront of an already competitive field of potential candidates. But one Republican firebrand, with possible presidential plans of his own, is already heaping dirt on Romney's ambition — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is warning the GOP against Romney in 2016, insisting that the nomination of an insufficiently conservative candidate will spell doom come Election Day.
Obviously, Cruz's remarks need to be assessed with all due skepticism, given their nakedly self-serving nature. Since joining the Senate in 2010, Cruz has been one of the most strident voices against moderation and compromise in the Republican Party, often clashing with members of his own party. In December, he riled up his own Senate colleagues by interrupting their holiday weekend with an unexpected session, a foible which allowed Senate Democrats to confirm Vivek Murphy as the country's new Surgeon General, among other nominees-in-waiting. In simplest terms, he doesn't seem to sweat being disliked, and when he calls for his party to nominate a more conservative candidate, the implication seems pretty clear — "hey guys, I'm right here!"
Cruz didn't just call out Romney, but also ran down the two preceding failed Republican nominees — Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008 — accusing all of them of being too moderate to drive conservative turnout.
If we nominate a candidate in that mold, the same people who stayed home in 2008 and 2012 will stay home in 2016 and the Democrats will win again.
There's a grim sort of humor to this line of thinking, of course. Romney's 2012 presidential persona was famously split into two distinct pieces — primary Mitt and general election Mitt. This isn't anything particularly new or daring, as all candidates have to play to their parties slightly differently than they can to the general public. But in Romney's case, his relative liberalism as governor of Massachusetts, his pioneering of a state-level health insurance mandate, and allegations that undocumented immigrants worked for him as landscapers all combined to make him try very hard to appear "severely conservative." While it's easy to forget now, he basically ran to the right of the entire GOP primary field on immigration.
And if Cruz's broadside is any indication, it seems like he'll be facing the same dilemma if he indeed runs in 2016. Between Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Cruz, and whatever other Republicans might jump in the mix — Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, maybe even gaffe-prone neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson? — Romney will once again have to precisely navigate a minefield of different ideologies to escape on the other end unscathed. There's considerably less pressure on this front for someone like Cruz, because nobody really worries he's anything different from what he's always claimed: a far-right, agenda-setting conservative Republican.
Rest assured, this is just the first warning shot in a Republican primary process that's going to get very, very intense as the months roll by. It'll be fascinating to see where all this stands a year from now.
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