Why Ted Cruz May One Day Wish He Had More Friends in Washington

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 24 2013 7:43 PM

The Cruz Missile

Sen. Ted Cruz isn’t interested in making friends. Is that a smart way for a senator to conduct himself?  

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Cruz is at liberty to be himself because he doesn't need establishment Republicans; he can raise all the campaign cash he requires from the grass-roots. He doesn't need help from leadership to orchestrate votes that will help him with moderates in his state because there aren’t enough moderates in Texas to make it matter. Other Tea Party favorites such as Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin take a different approach. They will both be up for re-election in blue states in a presidential year, which means Democratic turnout will be high, so they'll need all the establishment help they can get (if they don't face a Tea Party primary first). These senators are counter-examples to Cruz and company: principled conservatives who aren’t irritating their colleagues.

In the old Senate, Cruz would have curbed his enthusiasm because he might have wanted to bring pork home to his state and he’d need help from his colleagues to do that. Earmarks are now mostly gone. But there are still dangers lurking for Cruz and others in the purity caucus. Though Barack Obama moved through the Senate quickly, he used it as a platform for bipartisan platform building. That’s what you need to do to win a national election in a diverse country. Cruz is pursuing the opposite strategy. It may win him cheers at home, but that puts him on track toward becoming this generation's Phil Gramm, the Texas senator whose effort to build a conservative platform from within the Senate made him unappealing as a national candidate. 

Fellow conservatives worry that Cruz in particular, and Paul and Lee to a lesser extent, are harming the conservative brand. As a talented speaker with a knack for the limelight—who is now getting invitations to key primary states—Cruz gets media attention which elevates his clashes. When he treats a respected veteran senator like Dianne Feinstein like a dope, it makes all conservatives look bad.

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This isn't just about image. More established Republican senators argue that there are strategic downsides to the behavior of the firebrand freshmen. During the debate over gun control, the Wall Street Journal criticized Cruz, Paul, and Lee for giving Democrats a tactical victory by threatening a grandstanding filibuster. Cruz then earned a second critique from the Journal for overplaying his role and portraying himself in a way that belittled others in the cause: "Normally we'd ignore this insider politics, but Senators Cruz and Paul have been declaring for all to hear that they and a few others are the only conservatives of principle in politics."

The nightmare scenario that one Republican aide paints is that Cruz, Paul, and Lee allow Democrats to portray the party as hopelessly obstructionist and use it to make the public case for the "nuclear option," a procedural move that would allow Democrats to override the filibuster with simple majority votes. If this extreme scenario came to pass, it would dilute the power of all Republican senators because they would effectively lose the power to filibuster.

At issue in the marching career of Ted Cruz is whether nodding to the niceties of the Senate is an act of capitulation or a requirement if you are hoping to score long-term victories. I spoke to Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma this week about a wide variety of topics. He is as principled a conservative as you can find in the Senate, and he is more eloquent than Cruz about the venality of career politicians. But Coburn can also talk about the power of human relationships in politics in a way that seems antithetical to the brand of politics pursued by Cruz. "Relationships are how deals get done," said Coburn, who in this case was talking about President Obama. He's been friendly with Obama since 2005, the year they both arrived in the Senate. This is a constant source of confusion for Coburn’s constituents. "The No. 1 question I get at home is: Why are you friends with Barack Obama?" Coburn's answer, as Obama wrote in his essay about him for Time, is, “How better to influence somebody than to love them?” It's hard to imagine Ted Cruz talking that way. 

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