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?  

Ted Cruz speaks during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting.
Sen. Ted Cruz is new to the Senate, and he seems in no hurry to make friends.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sen. Ted Cruz doesn’t have as many friends as he says he does. In the latest round of  Cruz’s simmering debate with Sen. John McCain (who labeled Cruz a "wacko bird"), Cruz spoke of "my friend, the senior senator from Arizona" while painting him as out of touch with his party and country. It usually takes a while for senators to learn how to weaponize compliments and imprecations of friendship, but Cruz is a quick study. After a patient attack on McCain's understanding of history, Cruz said: "I know my friend from Arizona is well aware of that because he is such an esteemed historian of this body." Like use of the word "frankly," which in Washington means just the opposite, Cruz’s sentence is best read in reverse: McCain is neither a friend, esteemed, nor a historian. (He is still, however, from Arizona.)

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Do you need friends in the Senate anymore? Ted Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah are testing this theory in new ways. The power of Tea Party activists in Republican politics, the public’s low esteem for Congress, and structural changes in the Senate like the elimination of earmarks and the weakening of appropriations power have created more incentives for senators to get by without a little help from their friends.

Cruz has had a series of run-ins with his colleagues since being sworn in only four months ago. He battled Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein over gun control, his Senate Republican colleagues over a threat to filibuster gun legislation; and most recently he tangled with McCain and Republican Sen. Susan Collins over budget procedure. He wears the dustups as a badge of honor. "Count me a proud wacko bird," he told an approving audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, referring to McCain’s jab.

Advertisement

There was a time when a new senator could not have survived such a controversial start. "The making of a good senator is in some ways similar to the making of a good work of art," William White wrote in 1956 in Citadel: The Story of the U.S. Senate. "There are few shortcuts." Lyndon Johnson gave a copy of the book to freshman senators. It advised that a career rested "upon what is slowly developing and enduring ... rather than what is quick and spectacular. Eminence may be reached by a concentration on frenetic and untypical senatorial activity, but it will never be sustained in that way."

Ted Cruz didn’t read that book, and even if he did, he’s decided to write his own. Though his colleagues have suggested he tone down his hard charging approach, he continues to engage with verve on multiple fronts.

White’s description of the Senate described the institution before an ambitious John F. Kennedy vaulted to the presidency after serving only one term, beating out Senate lion Lyndon Johnson and other Senate veterans for his party’s nomination. A politician no longer had to build up a Senate career to make a national name. Sen. Barack Obama marked the final evolution of this theory. Sen. Ted Kennedy advised him to run soon lest he get too weighed down with associations to the Senate. Now Sens. Marco Rubio, Paul, and Cruz see the Senate cloak room as the waiting room to the Oval Office.

Cruz's constituents at home like his brand of truth telling. They sent him to Washington to ruffle feathers. He is seen as a patriot fighting for the right cause. Fans delight in his rhetorical flourishes, like his recent comparison of Senate debate to the argument among warring factions in Gulliver’s Travels over which end of the boiled egg to crack first before eating.

To join a club and immediately use it as a foil is seen as bad manners by Senate veterans. To portray your colleagues as sniveling weasels is seen as bad form. And, as one longtime Senate aide pointed out, it’s also probably worth pausing before telling John McCain you’re the one fighting for liberty when McCain actually did.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.