Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Ted Cruz vs. Rand Paul: A GOP road to nowhere

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1130 GMT (1930 HKT)
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, recently re-elected to a second term, is considered a possible Republican candidate. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, recently re-elected to a second term, is considered a possible Republican candidate.
HIDE CAPTION
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Rand Paul takes verbal shot at his potential 2016 rival Ted Cruz
  • Julian Zelizer says if GOP faces a choice between the two for nomination, watch out
  • He says many voters won't back party that's extreme, obstructionist or libertarian
  • Zelizer: Republicans hurt by Chris Christie's woes, have to hope for Jeb Bush to run

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- A fight has broken out between two of the most prominent members of the Republican Party: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

In an op-ed for Breitbart News, Paul took a shot at Cruz, without actually naming him, when he wrote, "I will remind anyone who thinks we will win elections by trashing previous Republican nominees or holding oneself out as some paragon in the mold of Reagan, that splintering the party is not the route to victory." This was just one more flash point in the ongoing tension that has characterized their relationship.

The back-and-forth has captured considerable attention since both men have been discussed as possible contenders for the Republican nomination in 2016.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Each is seen as representing a different faction of the Republican right: Cruz the take-no-prisoners, slash-and-burn conservatives who will do just about anything to obtain their objectives and Paul the libertarian voice pushing back against all forms of government.

If Cruz and Paul turn out to be the major spokespersons for the debate about where the Republican Party should go, then the party is going to be in some big trouble.

Cruz represents an extremist wing of the GOP that can't seem to govern. Since the emergence of the tea party in 2009, the Republican Party has been shaped by a group of politicians who have been willing to employ extraordinarily aggressive tactics in the pursuit of cuts to domestic spending. Nobody has symbolized this style of leadership more than Cruz. He led the drumbeat to shut down the federal government to force President Obama's hand on spending and has favored the Republican refusal to raise the debt ceiling. Cruz has also been a master of the filibuster, employing variations of the tactic to bring the Senate to a standstill.

This image of obstructionist governance might excite the most loyal activists in the party, but it is not a style conducive to presidential leadership and it is not a style that plays well at a national level.

Senators Ted Cruz, left, of Texas, and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Senators Ted Cruz, left, of Texas, and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Republicans have suffered greatly in the polls as a result of these kinds of extremist tactics. One recent poll found that four out of five Americans don't trust the Republican Party. "That's just about as bad as it gets," noted MSNBC host, and Republican, Joe Scarborough. Many Americans question whether the Republicans can govern. A Cruz candidacy would perfectly set up a Hillary Clinton candidacy by allowing Democrats to emphasize her ability to get things done and make the political system work.

Rand Paul represents a different problem: He is a politician whose rhetoric is totally at odds with the history of the GOP. Since the 1930s, libertarians have had trouble gaining traction within the party.

The reality has been that most Republicans have embraced the federal government as a permanent part of national politics. In the area of national security, the party has been a driving force behind the expansion of the military establishment since the Cold War.

While some Republicans like Paul might now rail against the surveillance tactics of the National Security Agency, the recent power of this agency was built on the foundation that Republicans built with the war on terrorism under President George W. Bush.

Neither have Republicans been a true small government party in domestic policy. Studies have shown how federal spending has grown more dramatically under Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan, than Democrats.

Most Republicans have avoided cutting most of the big-ticket programs, such as Social Security or farm assistance, while pushing for an expansion of government in other areas, such as Medicare Prescription Drugs. Republican legislators have been as skillful at pork-barrel politics as anyone from the other side of the aisle.

Though Paul may claim he will do things differently, Democrats could have a field day challenging the veracity of such claims given the weight of history that he faces.

The weaknesses of both men—Cruz in terms of his style and Paul in terms of his rhetoric—point out how desperate the GOP is to find someone who can build a broad coalition, something that is essential for a presidential victory, particularly when Republicans will likely be facing a formidable candidate.

The problems of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been a huge blow to the party, and there are not many alternatives at this point who are willing to run to replace a figure who, in terms of style of governance and rhetoric, would have a better chance of appealing to voters beyond the base. This is the reason former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is getting so much buzz, as potentially the only other person who can fill this void.

If Republicans can't find some alternative and the primaries revolve around the tension between Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, Democrats will be in excellent position to retain the White House in 2016.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT