Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican firebrand, did a cannonball into the 2016 presidential pool this morning. In a stem-winder of a speech at Liberty University in Virginia, he became the first announced candidate in a GOP field primed to get crowded, fast. So the freshman Senator sought to make the most of his momentary monopoly on the spotlight, using his trademark televangelist style to signal a bid that will go big against the established order. He called, for example, for repealing every line of Obamacare, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, and imposing a flat tax in place of the current code.
Tellingly, his campaign website brings those ambitions down to earth. As the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney notes, the “Jobs and Opportunity” section of the site, after trumpeting his Obamacare repeal efforts, notes that Cruz “authored legislation to end taxpayer dollars subsidizing corporate fat cats, including the Ex-Im Bank.” In terms of the scale of the impact, the two efforts could hardly be more disparate. The first addresses a multi-trillion dollar health care market that touches every American. The second takes on a picayune agency providing credit financing to help a handful of big corporations and some small businesses boost their overseas sales.
Yet there’s a direct line between them. Cruz has engineered some spectacular flops trying to chip away at the landmark health care law (ahem, 2013 government shutdown), and those failures have injected new urgency into the attempt by his wing of the party to notch a win. Enter the Ex-Im Bank — or the Export-Import Bank of the United States, to give its official title — whose charter expires in June. That means to kill the agency, all its opponents have to do is ensure lawmakers do nothing — an area where they’ve excelled. Indeed, the fact that the bank is relatively easy pickings has inflated its symbolic value. One of Cruz’s chief allies in the fight, House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), explicitly frames it as “the tip of the sword, or the first skirmish” in a wider war for the soul of the GOP’s economic policy. If the bank’s opponents claim this scalp, they’d look to carry the momentum forward into the debate on tax reform — though dismantling the IRS would still be a reach, to put it lightly.
The bank’s defenders — think multinationals such as Boeing, Caterpillar, and General Electric, and their representatives in Washington, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — have an added headache now that Cruz has fired the starting gun in the 2016 race. The center of gravity in the internal Republican argument will accelerate its drift out to the campaign trail, where candidates competing for the allegiance of early-state conservatives will wrench it rightward. The debate over the bank has already previewed that dynamic. Last month, a cavalcade of presumptive Republican contenders turned up in Palm Beach, Fla., for the winter meeting of the free-market Club for Growth, and all declared their support for ending Ex-Im — including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the field’s centrist pacesetter. Back in Washington, Senators are working across the aisle to strike a compromise that could save the bank. But it faces its real test in the House, where the rising chorus of antipathy from the presidential hopefuls will reverberate.
Cruz didn’t mention Ex-Im from the stage at Liberty University this morning. It isn’t yet the sort of issue that quickens the pulse of the young activists he’s looking to draw into his fold. But it’s perhaps no coincidence that while he was speaking, the U.S. Chamber promoted a tweet linking to an online form for people to tell their elected representatives they support the bank. The agency is caught in a crosswind that’s picking up speed.