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Ted Cruz's Clever, Tricky Triangulation

He may be known as an unyielding conservative, but on issues from national defense to political experience, the Texas senator is staking out a position as the goldilocks candidate.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

One underappreciated element of Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign—which has recently come in for a great deal of praise by savvy operators on both sides of the aisle and in the press—are his quiet but effective acts of triangulation.

The Texas senator’s self-image is premised on his uncompromising, unyielding, principled conservatism. That’s a bit of a fiction—back in the 2000s, Cruz was a George W. Bush-adoring “compassionate conservative”—but it’s a carefully constructed one, bolstered through fauxlibusters over Obamacare and the blithe contravention of his party’s leadership. And it has worked: Whoever Donald Trump and Ben Carson might appeal to, polls generally show Cruz leading among Republican voters who identify as “very conservative.”

While that may play well among, say, socially conservative Iowans, it makes it tough to win a primary nationwide. But Cruz is very smartly positioning himself as—well, maybe even almost a tiny minimal bit moderate. For example, take his views on foreign policy.

“If you look at President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and for that matter some of the more aggressive Washington neo-cons, they have consistently mis-perceived the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists,” he tells Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur.

As Kapur writes, Cruz is setting up his own position “as a third way between the stalwart, non-interventionist views of Senator Rand Paul and pro-interventionist policies in pursuit of spreading democracy and human rights through the Middle East that [Senator Marco] Rubio espouses.” How different is Cruz’s position here than Paul’s? It seems like more of a matter of emphasis than substance. Here’s what Paul said during the Fox Business Channel debate:

Can you be a conservative, and be liberal on military spending? Can you be for unlimited military spending, and say, Oh, I'm going to make the country safe? No, we need a safe country, but, you know, we spend more on our military than the next ten countries combined? I want a strong national defense, but I don't want us to be bankrupt.

To which Cruz replied that there was “a middle ground that brings both of these together… [That’s] exactly right, that we have to defend this nation. You think defending this nation is expensive, try not defending it. That's a lot more expensive. But, you can do that, and pay for it. You can do that, and also be fiscally responsible.” Cruz is calling Paul an isolationist, but at the same time he’s usurped his support by espousing much the same view: Defense is important, and it should be paid for, but foreign adventurism is the realm of Democrats like Clinton and neocons like Rubio. No surprise that as Cruz has risen, Paul has faded.

Cruz did something similar on the question of Syrian immigrants. On the one hand, he took nearly as hard a line as anyone in the Republican field on Syrian refugees, even introducing a bill that would bar Muslim refugees from Syria from the United States. Yet he also took a rare step in distancing himself from Donald Trump, who seemed amenable to the idea of registries of Muslims. The message seems to be, Sure, I’m a wild-eyed conservative, but I’m not, y’know, crazy.

Aside from policy, Cruz is conducting another tidy act of triangulation on his own record. Cruz has been positioning himself as an outsider against the deeply unpopular GOP establishment, and not (say) as a U.S. senator and former Bush administration foot solider. Yet he also bridles at any suggestion that he’s inexperienced, as Jim Newell pointed out earlier this year when Cruz tried to differentiate his own record from Senator Barack Obama’s.

So far, this triangulation seems to be working pretty well. Cruz’s numbers are starting to tick up, just as he and his allies predicted. He’s got a strong base among conservatives, and if—as many observers still expect—Trump and Ben Carson fade, he’ll likely corral more. Yet through a combination of his own careful balancing and the Trump and Carson’s tendencies to say outrageous things, Cruz has managed to avoid much scrutiny of his more radical positions, including abolishing the IRS, returning to the gold standard, eliminating rape and incest exceptions for abortion, and breaching the debt ceiling.

Those positions will, ultimately, still pose a challenge to Cruz winning the nomination, for all the reasons that Harry Enten laid out back in March. In the meantime, though, they appear to be a smart way to steer the primary campaign toward the Cruz-Rubio showdown the Texan says he expects.