The Unguided Cruz Missile of US Politics

By J Brooks Spector 26 September 2013

Ted Cruz, the Republican junior senator from Texas, has crashed into headlines around the world as the most talkative person in Washington, even if he ended up speaking about green eggs and ham and other entertaining bits of ephemera for much of his marathon speech. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a quick look under the hood of the Tea Party’s newest favourite son in Washington.

For over 21 hours, until around noon on Wednesday, senator Cruz engaged in that most dramatic of Senate rituals. This is the filibuster, a “talkathon” designed to block any action on pending legislation in the Senate, where the chamber’s rules preclude stopping debate until that body can be prevailed upon to vote for cloture, or ending debate. Cloture requires at least 60 senators to vote to close discussion.

In fact, Cruz’s speechifying was bit of a sham. Theatre. To some, and perhaps to himself as well, Cruz must have seemed like he was channelling Jimmy Stewart in the Frank Capra classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the story of a guileless naïf of a senator who is determined to block the shameful prevarications of legislators thoroughly in the pockets of the fat cats. In fact, Cruz was really carrying out what some wag termed a faux-libuster, rather than a bona fide filibuster to stop Senate action in its tracks. By mid-day on Wednesday, the Senate voted 100 – 0 (with even Cruz ultimately voting with the majority) to shut Cruz up, thereby ending his stalling effort. That accomplished, the Senate could move on to consider the House of Representatives’ temporary budget bill, a measure that would, putatively, “defund” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka Obamacare.

The New York Times, reporting after the vote took place, noted, “But with his indefatigable loquaciousness, Mr Cruz managed to raise his own profile, anger some colleagues, thrill others and elevate further the war over the health care law. The program begins enrolling the uninsured on Tuesday, the same day much of the government would shut down if the budget showdown were not resolved. ‘We must all hang together or we most assuredly will all hang separately,’ Mr Cruz said in the 11th hour of his stand, quoting Benjamin Franklin and addressing his fellow Republican senators. He vowed to keep up his parliamentary battle to thwart ‘the train wreck, the nightmare, the disaster that is Obamacare.’”

The Republican Party-controlled House of Representatives had voted a temporary budget bill (otherwise known in Washington as a continuing resolution) that would have zeroed out any funding to administer the ACA – if the Senate would go along with it, and President Obama signed it into law. Nevertheless, the leadership of the Democratic-controlled Senate has already said such a measure will be impossible to support and that they will move to strip out the defunding provision before they pass the continuing resolution. There is, of course, no chance the President would himself support gutting the signal legislative accomplishment of his first term in office. This thereby sets up a standoff between the two parties, the two houses of Congress and between the President and the Congress (or at least the Republican-controlled portion of it).

Thus the real strategy behind this effort on the part of Republicans has been to bring the government to a crisis point and a partial shutdown, since the US federal government’s financial year ends on 30 September. This would put really serious pressure on the President and his party. Without any budget continuing resolution, the government’s machinery begins to grind to a halt (save for essential services), and citizen complaints could be expected to rise accordingly.

But among the Republicans themselves there has been a contorted division. There are those (such as speaker of the house, John Boehner, until he changed his mind under pressure from the Tea Party-affiliated members) who believe such a stunt will play to the serious detriment of Republicans, just as it did with former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich’s effort to provoke a shutdown almost two decades ago. There are others who feel this is the wrong battle, that the real fight should be waged over the debt ceiling that will come up a few weeks later. And there are even a few Republican legislators who simply believe that the ACA is, after all, the law of the land, duly passed by a previous Congress, and thus their party’s focus should be on passing more incremental changes to the legislation and getting on with the real business of actually passing budgets and debating policy.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the ACA was substantially the same as the measure passed by the Massachusetts legislature some years ago when Mitt Romney was the state’s governor, and that it originated from proposals designed by a conservative think tank, in preference to the more usual Democratic ambition of a national single payer system. Such a system would have more closely mimicked Medicare, the national medical insurance system that operates for the elderly.

So who is this combative, energetic, talkative senator Ted Cruz? Putting aside anyone’s disagreements over his principles and ideas, everyone agrees Cruz has impeccable pedigree in terms of training and experience, which has made him a natural for the Senate. He attended Princeton University for his BA where he was a national champion debater. He then went to Harvard University’s fabled law school and helped found the Latin students’ law review.

After law school, Cruz clerked for an appellate court justice as well as for Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the Supreme Court. He worked on the Bush 2000 campaign, taught law, and has also been the solicitor general of Texas (one of the most senior legal officials of a state government). Moreover, he argued cases before the Supreme Court nine times. Cruz is one seriously smart, sharp fellow.

Cruz was born in Canada, although his parents were US citizens. In order to clarify his citizenship circumstances he says he has now renounced any putative Canadian nationality. (Interestingly, his father had fought for Castro back in the early days of the Cuban revolution.) Oh, and did we mention that he is a Hispanic American in a party that has seemingly found a way to alienate most such would-be voters through its hard-line stance on immigration reform?

He also seems to have quickly been bitten by the presidential bug (something of an occupational hazard with high profile senators), even though he has only been in the Senate since 2012. Yes, 2016 is still years away, but a candidate, especially a Republican one this time around with its presumably already-crowded field of contenders, has to figure out a way to break free from the herd to appeal to the primary activists and voters who will winnow down the herd to one or two candidates. For Republicans, these voters are increasingly skewed to groups of right wing conservatives, libertarians and Tea Party activists.

As a result, the trick for a Republican would-be candidate is to figure out a way to capture the loyalty of such voters, without alienating other more moderate Republicans. And so it appears that Cruz is already trying to identify himself as the man who would have squelched Obamacare, were it not for those temporizing compromisers in his own party, or those truly wicked ones over in the other camp.

Nevertheless, Cruz is already getting a taste of the criticism he will face on a frequent basis going forward. The American Prospect (an admittedly left-liberal publication) wrote acidly, “Ted Cruz – Tea Party hero, up-and-comer, future presidential candidate – is suddenly finding himself on the receiving end of a whole lot of hostility from House Republicans. By way of context, there’s a broad consensus that Cruz is, as George W. Bush would put it, a major-league asshole. He’s not someone who wastes time and energy being nice to people or cultivating relationships that could be useful down the road. He’s pretty sure he’s smarter than everyone, and doesn’t mind making it clear that’s how he feels. People consider him rude and condescending. This was apparent from the moment he got to Washington, and it was true back in Texas as well. But if you agree with his politics, then does that matter.” Maybe yes, but maybe not, depending on how he positions himself going forward.

Interestingly, in a widely reprinted column by Jonah Goldberg the other day, the author draws a comparison between Cruz and none other than Barack Obama. Goldberg writes, “Ted Cruz is no Joe McCarthy, as so many liberals bizarrely claim. But he might be the conservative Barack Obama.”

Building his case Goldberg adds, “National Review [the archetypal right wing/libertarian magazine] editor Rich Lowry put his finger on one plausible source of elite liberal hatred for Cruz: betrayal. ‘Cruz is from the intellectual elite, but not of it, a tea party conservative whose politics are considered gauche at best at the storied universities where he studied. He is, to borrow the words of the 2009 H.W. Brands biography of FDR, a traitor to his class’… What liberals hate in Cruz, they love in Obama: a product of an elite education who confirms all their feelings of superiority. Obama took the desiccated ideas of campus liberalism and made them seem vibrant, stylish and even populist. Both men made political hay of their ethnicity. It worked better for Obama, but it’s worth noting that Cruz has an impressive list of ‘firsts’ for a Latino, which he proudly — and rightly — highlights in his official biography.”

But Goldberg’s killer point is that “The real similarities, however, come in the form of their approach to politics. Both landed in the U.S. Senate, running with larger ambitions in mind. Moreover, both grasp that historically the Senate whittles away presidential timber. Like John F. Kennedy, Obama was there just long enough to run for president. And while Obama was there, his chief goal was burnishing his presidential image, not racking up legislative accomplishments.”

Assuming Cruz’s parliamentary methods don’t wreak havoc on his own party’s efforts to thwart the Democratic agenda, that his public actions don’t make him the poster child for a damaging government shutdown and an equally damaging, prolonged fight over the budget, the debt ceiling and the automatic sequester cuts in the military and other programs and that he isn’t out-played by other potential presidential candidates like Republican senator Marco Rubio from Florida, Ted Cruz is going to be a thorn in the side of Barack Obama through 2016. And that would make him a likely contender for his party’s nomination for the presidency. Oh, and was it mentioned earlier that he is a youngish, whip-sharp, Hispanic American Republican senator from Texas? DM

For more, read:

  • Senate votes to proceed with funding bill, at the Washington Post
  • After 21-Hour Cruz Speech, Senate Votes to Take Up Budget, at the New York Times
  • Ted Cruz, the GOP’s Obama, a column by Jonas Goldberg in the LA Times
  • Ted Cruz Is Not Well-Liked, at the American Prospect
  • Senator Talks for Hours, While in Real World, Things Proceed According to Plan, at the American Prospect
  • Who is Ted Cruz?, at the Washington Post
  • Sen. Cruz extends attack on Obamacare into Wednesday morning, in the Washington Post
  • Ted Cruz’s stinging indictment of the Republican Party, at the Washington Post
  • The Ambitions of Ted Cruz, a column by Ross Douthat, in the New York Times
  • What Ted Cruz wants (and why he’s going to get it), a column by Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post
  • Meet Ted Cruz, “The Republican Barack Obama”, at Mother Jones
  • Ted Cruz in middle of GOP civil war, at Politico

Photo: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks to the press after leaving the U.S. Senate Chamber after a marathon attack on “Obamacare,” at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 25, 2013. Standing in a nearly empty Senate Chamber, Cruz spent more than 21 hours making his case to deny funding to implement President Barack Obama’s landmark overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system, urguing it is hurting the economy. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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