Can Ted Cruz Convince Conservatives Obama Is a Success?

In debating whether the Texan is too inexperienced to run, the right has to decide whether the current president is a disastrous failure or a disastrous success.

Victoria Burke/Charles Dharapak/AP

First-term senator. Son of a foreign-born father. Electoral longshot. Harvard Law Review editor. Constitutional lawyer. Lauded orator.

Is that Ted Cruz? Or is it Barack Obama? It's both, of course. The similarities between the two men are somewhat superficial—you'd be hard-pressed to find many parallels deeper than what's listed here—but it's enough to have set off a debate among conservatives about whether Cruz is a "Republican Obama." And that debate offers a view of a different and more interesting debate in the same group, about whether President Obama has been a disastrous failure or a disastrous success.

Liberal pundits have tended to write Cruz off as simply unelectable. Conservative commentators are much more likely to consider him a serious candidate, but many have reservations. Take two of the most influential conservative opinion journalists working today.

"First-term senators, we already tried a first-term senator," Charles Krauthammer says. "Cruz talks about you have to walk the walk rather than just talk the talk. You have to have done something, but that's not his record in the Senate. He's a good rhetorician, but when [Wisconsin Governor Scott] Walker says I ran the state, I took on the unions, I took on liberals and I won I think it is going to be a strong argument."

Similarly, Erick Erickson presents Cruz—along with fellow Senate presidential possibles Marco Rubio and Rand Paul—with what he described as a "fair and relevant question": "For six years, Republicans have said the nation made a mistake electing a one term Senator the President of the United States. Why should you, a one term Senator, be the GOP’s nominee?" Erickson writes at RedState. "Given Republican rhetoric against President Obama for six years, it is fair and relevant. I look forward to their answers."

Both writers work from the assumption, commonly voiced among Republicans and conservatives, that Barack Obama has been a disastrous failure. That was the leading motif of the 2012 election, as is generally the case when an incumbent is running. Mitt Romney said Obama was a failure on a range of fronts, from domestic policy to the economy to foreign affairs. Unfortunately for Romney, one thing Obama didn't fail to do was win the election.

Considering the president's record, from Obamacare to Dodd-Frank, gay rights to environmental regulation, and culminating in reelection, suggests an alternative scenario: that Obama has actually been, from a right-wing perspective, a disastrous success. Successful in that he has implemented his agenda quite effectively; disastrous in that his agenda is bad for the nation.

In fact, that's the answer the Cruz camp offers. In the course of a great piece explaining why Obamaites don't think Cruz is the new Obama, Dave Weigel quoted Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler explaining why Cruz actually is the new Obama—and why that's positive. "Although I don’t like it, and conservatives don’t like it, which part of his experience are we questioning with Obama?" Tyler said. "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."

Tyler's answer may be self-serving, in that it fits with Cruz's premise for a campaign—that other Republicans are unwilling to stand up to the president, but Cruz has done so on issue after issue, often to the fury of Republican leaders. But it's also tough to dispute, at least on issues like health care, gay rights, and environmental regulation. The case gets more tenuous on foreign policy, for example, but it's still hard to paint Obama as fitting in the mold of a feckless Jimmy Carter (or perhaps in the mold of the current conservative caricature of Carter) when he's got such a litany of accomplishments.

Erickson's RedState colleague Ben Howe makes the same case, calling Obama an "incredibly successful" president. "I like many others, hoped he would fail, too," Howe writes. "But he didn’t. And experience or lack thereof had nothing to do with it."

Meanwhile, The Weekly Standard's Jay Cost complements Howe's piece in an article about the skills a president needs. While he doesn't connect it directly to Obama, Cost notes that having a good relationship with the Congress is only one path available. What he doesn't need to say is that neither Obama nor Cruz has a good relationship with Congress. A second path is to play the outside game: "The president applies pressure on Congress indirectly, by influencing public opinion. The thinking is that if the president rallies the people, Congress will follow along." This is, of course, what Obama has done, and is presumably what a President Cruz would, too: use powerful speeches to appeal to the electorate directly, and then turn that into leverage on legislators. (Cost argues that Congress is really the root of the nation's political dysfunction, which puts him on the same page as liberal political observers like Matt Yglesias.)

Perhaps, like Lyndon Johnson, Obama will see his legacy defined by the collapse of his foreign policy, overshadowing his domestic achievements. But if his legacy ends up being built on Obamacare and the rest, Obama's reputation among conservatives could be a mirror image of Ronald Reagan's among liberals. The left still disdains the Gipper's supply-side economics and social conservatism, but progressives have generally come to admit that Reagan was a highly successful president and an incredibly talented politician.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama himself famously named Reagan as a transformational president whose model he wished to emulate. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign could help return the favor by affirming Obama's own legacy of transformation.