Voices: Ted Cruz at CPAC: From presidential candidate to boorish podcast host

 (AP)
(AP)

When Ted Cruz took to the CPAC stage today just outside of Washington DC and looked out at the sparse crowd before him, his mind might have wandered back to the heady days of 2016.

That was the first, last and only time he won the conservative conference’s straw poll — a time before Donald Trump had captured the GOP, when he was a serious contender for his party’s presidential nomination, when he mattered.

Back then, the fiery and clean-shaven Cruz enraptured the room and mocked his then-rival Trump. Today he was seated, bearded, and facing an audience and a conservative movement that had outgrown him. He resembled a podcast host more than a presidential candidate (quite literally, in fact, because he recorded an episode of his podcast from the stage).

The senator from Texas told a few campfire stories about Covid — including one in which he was forced to miss an Eagles concert due to exposure to an infected person. He railed against Dr Antony Fauci, who he claimed “has done more damage than any bureaucrat in the history of our nation.”

He did the same when asked about attorney general Merrick Garland, whom he called “the most partisan, politicised attorney general our nation has ever seen.”

The conference — an annual gathering of right-wing political figures and influencers from across the country — has often been thought of as a yardstick of the conservative id. So what does Cruz’s journey tell us?

That Cruz won the straw poll at CPAC the same year that Trump won the nomination is revealing. Cruz’s selling point then was that he was an outsider; it didn’t matter that was an Ivy League-educated former clerk of a Supreme Court judge, his pitch was a challenge to orthodoxy. He was a favourite of the Tea Party, the extremist wing of the conservative movement that was hungry for disruptors. For the man who contributed to a government shutdown in his effort to repeal “every blessed word of Obamacare,” obstruction of the Democrats was the end goal, at all costs.

Today, the Republican Party is full of Ted Cruz types. At CPAC especially, you can’t move without bumping into a Ted Cruz-alike — ballrooms full of personalities built around owning the libs and making Democrats angry; shock jocks and self-described mavericks. And podcasters, podcasters everywhere.

The energy that made Cruz popular was directed to Trump — in the eyes of activists, he was brasher, more extreme, more of an outsider — and the party hasn’t looked back since.

Cruz was at his most popular when he was an outlier. Perhaps he can count it as a victory that there are more like him in the party today, but it’s a cruel irony that this fact has made him less relevant than ever.