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Imagine Ted Cruz as president

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If you guessed Sen. Ted Cruz would launch his presidential campaign by remixing John Lennon's "Imagine," well, you win the pool.

Cruz, a former national debater, is an excellent speaker. And he doesn't just dish red meat. His announcement at Liberty University had the friendly, looping cadence of a megachurch preacher. He walked the stage confidently. He bantered with the crowd. He told stories. He was as comfortable talking Obamacare as he is layering on schmaltz. Liberals who have come to expect a conservative firebreather will be disappointed.

But there was an odd note twanging through his address, and it took to an anonymous student on the social networking app YikYak to point it out: "Imagining this guy actually fulfilling these promises."

The word Cruz kept coming back to — "imagine" — was a bit of a dodge. He asked his audience at the evangelical Christian university to imagine a more conservative world. He asked them to imagine a flat tax, and the full repeal of Obamacare, and a government that stands against gay marriage and with Bibi Netanyahu. But he didn't tell them how to achieve it — save for the implied vote for Cruz. The speech ended up feeling like a cross between CPAC and The Secret.

Imagination is not a plan

Ted Cruz is a very conservative senator. But he's not, on most issues, far outside the Republican mainstream. He wants to repeal Obamacare and lower taxes. He wants to shrink the government and take a tougher stand against Iran. There's not much that Cruz imagines that his colleagues don't also dream of.

What sets Cruz apart are his tactics: he tends toward confrontation — even with other Republicans. Conservative columnist George Will said that Cruz "is completely indifferent to the fact that politics is a team sport ... He is frankly loathed within the Republican caucus." Slate's John Dickerson spent some time talking to congressional Republicans and came up with no fewer than 10 complaints they had about Cruz.

For many Republicans, the signal moment of Cruz's congressional career was when he pushed the party to shut down the government in 2013. Many Republicans think Cruz's shutdown — which led to the lowest-ever poll numbers for the GOP — was a disaster, and they remain angry that he forced them into it.

Cruz, for his part, appears to think his colleagues fold too quickly and easily on matters of principle. He wears his isolation as a badge of pride. "It's worth remembering when Reagan ran, Washington despised Reagan," he said at CPAC.

The other bright lights of the Tea Party have followed very different paths in the Senate. Rand Paul has developed a warm friendship with Harry Reid and has a reputation for working well with both Democrats and Republicans. Marco Rubio worked with a bipartisan group of senators to pass the immigration bill (an effort he likely now regrets). Mike Lee has risen into Republican leadership by being particularly good at working with his colleagues to come up with new policy proposals. Cruz's approach to politics is unusual even among his closest contemporaries.

Can Cruz get 60 votes in the Senate?

All this raises a bigger question for Cruz — one he didn't really try to answer in his speech: how would he actually get anything done in the White House?

It's all well and good to imagine a more conservative America. But as liberals learned with the election of Barack Obama, retaking the White House is the beginning, not the end, of any effort to substantially change public policy. To get anything big done, the president needs to be skilled at getting Congress to vote for his bills. He needs to accept huge, painful compromises on nearly anything he passes. Rounding up the votes for a flat tax is no small matter — and by the end, the tax isn't likely to be nearly as flat as when it started.

Cruz likes to compare himself to Ronald Reagan, but by the time Reagan won the presidency, he had been a two-term governor of California who had shown himself capable of compromising with a legislature. Cruz hasn't shown much talent at that, or even much interest in it. Nor is it obvious Cruz could substitute executive power for legislative authority — his arguments against Obama have, at least until this point, suggested a limited view of presidential authority.

Which is all to say that Cruz is going to run as the anti-establishment candidate. But what will he do when he becomes the establishment? That's the part that I, at least, have trouble imagining.

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