Can A Conservative Media Darling Win In 2016?

For GOP national candidates, navigating the conservative media is kind of like NASA executing a gravitational slingshot: there's a hot, dense center of gravity that you want to get just close enough to so that your campaign rocket ship gets a boost in the right direction. Veer too far and you'll drift into the political void. Get too close and you'll crash hard onto Planet Wingnut.

This complicated act of political physics is becoming a defining characteristic of national Republican politics. Would-be candidates who don't hold elected office or otherwise lack a national platform turn to Fox News for exposure (and in the case of paid contributors, a paycheck). Anyone who wants to make it past the Ames straw poll can't risk drawing the ire of a big name radio host. Of course, as Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum can attest, you can't be too cozy with the activist right either. It's tough to pull off, particularly as talk radio and conservative online media slouch further and further to the right.

Those of us who remember the 2012 election know that presidential candidates who channel the conservative blogosphere and poach talking points from Fox News quickly run into trouble. Mitt Romney's exposition on the 47 percent and his claims about President Obama's global “apology tour” traced their roots back to the conservative blogosphere. Romney (one could argue) indulged in this sort of rhetoric because he felt he had to boost his standing among the Republican base.

With that in mind, we turn to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), whose trip to Iowa last week stoked a round of 2016 speculation. Cruz is a different matter from the likes of Romney. Conservative activists love the junior senator from Texas, and he's a Fox News favorite (a Nexis search shows he's been on Hannity five times this year already). He'll enthusiastically grab onto conservative media narratives and carry them into Senate hearing rooms.

For example, Cruz's questioning of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his nomination hearing was at times... colorful, drawing from the worst of right-wing media memes. At one point Cruz asked Hagel why he had described an Israeli strike on Hezbollah as a “sickening slaughter” -- a distortion of Hagel's actual 2006 statement on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, in which he said “the sickening slaughter on both sides must end.” The distorted quote first appeared in the Weekly Standard, and after the hearing Cruz received an attaboy from Sean Hannity.

Cruz also got a hero's response from the right-wing commentariat following his spirited, constitutionally suspect defense of gun rights during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Sen. Diane Feinstein's proposed assault weapons ban. The senator argued that the Constitution doesn't allow for limitations to rights enumerated in the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments. A long history of judicial precedent argues otherwise. The Daily Caller, which spent 2012 giving out free guns with the Bill of Rights inscribed on them, wrote up Cruz's remarks under the headline: “Ted Cruz offends Diane Feinstein by bringing up the Constitution.”

So if Cruz is indeed considering a run for the presidency in 2016, what impact would his coziness with the fever swamp have? The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky sees in Cruz a politician who “takes the wildest yahoo positions arguably of any prominent politician in America” but is also “something of an intellectual,” and the combined effect of the two could win him the Republican nomination and sink him in the general election. It's not clear that Cruz's closeness to the base is any real strength, even when it comes to winning the nomination -- the previous two Republican nominees were at times actively hated by the rank-and-file, but they got the party nod regardless.

But even Romney's troubled relationship with the hardline conservatives was still viewed as a major liability for a candidate looking to get half the country behind him. The New York Times' Ross Douthat wrote this past weekend that conservatives' rage at Washington generally and Obama specifically may have some superficial appeal to voters, but without a compelling policy agenda they're unlikely to get over the electoral hump. The conservative media are the public face of that rage and at the moment they're more likely to celebrate politicians who revel in obstructionism than those who make even cautious attempts to work with Democrats to pass legislation. Marco Rubio is getting beaten up by the online right for his efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform (though he appears to be pivoting hard on other issues to regain their favor). Meanwhile, a strong majority of Americans back a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Ted Cruz, on the other hand, loves the conservative media, and they love him back. And given the degree to which the interests of the nation and the right-wing press are diverging, it's hard not to view that as an electoral liability in the long run.