As they used to say in the old westerns, it was quiet out there-too quiet. So no one was really surprised when Ted Cruz announced to The Washington Post the weekend before the November election that his brief flirtation with civilized behavior was nearing its end.
For months, the Texas senator had abandoned his "the guy with dynamite strapped to his chest" persona, as one Republican political strategist describes it, to be a team player, crisscrossing the country to campaign for GOP candidates. No filibusters on the Senate floor to hold the federal budget hostage to the repeal of Obamacare; no fundraising letters on behalf of Tea Party insurgents seeking to knock off what Cruz likes to call "squishy" Republican incumbents.
But secure in the knowledge that private tracking polls showed a Republican landslide on the way, Cruz unchained his not-so-inner werewolf. The first thing on the agenda for the new, Republican-led Senate, he said, should be hearings on President Barack Obama's "abuse of power, the executive abuse, the regulatory abuse, the lawlessness that sadly has pervaded his administration." To break up the monotony, Cruz added, the Senate will mount a human-wave attack against Obamacare, voting to repeal the whole thing and then, when the president vetoes their measure, attacking the law one provision at a time, forcing another 10 or 20 or a hundred or a thousand vetoes.
To much of official Washington and its media courtiers, this sounds like insanity. As one of Trent Lott's former staffers told the Post, Cruz "will certainly get the base jazzed up about what he's doing, but he won't get rid of the law."
If you're a presidential candidate, though, getting the base jazzed up is the whole point. The same weekend that Cruz announced his return to the warpath, The Des Moines Register published a poll showing that the single biggest issue motivating voters who supported Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (a Republican who a couple of days later would win an upset victory in her race for the U.S. Senate) was, by a large margin, "to get one step closer to repealing Obama-care." Iowa also happens to be the site of the first 2016 presidential caucus. The man with the dynamite strapped to his chest will be there, and what explodes may be the chattering-class perception that Ted Cruz is too crazy to be considered a serious candidate for president.
Can a Wacko Bird Be Crazy Like a Fox?
Two and a half years ago, before Ted Cruz had even been elected to the Senate-when he was still just a couple of months past being, as he likes to joke, a candidate with 2 percent of the vote in polls with a 3 percent margin of error-the Republican strategist Mark McKinnon wrote an extraordinarily prescient piece calling Cruz "the Republican Barack Obama."
"A young, Harvard-educated lawyer, an intellectual with a compelling life story, the son of an American mother and an immigrant father, a practiced orator thrust into the national political spotlight, and buoyed by a cult of personality," McKinnon described him, hitting only one wrong note: "He'll have to pivot a bit to the middle while not stepping on the toes of those who brung 'em to the dance."
If Cruz pivoted, it was on an arc so tiny that it exists only in theoretical physics. More than a month before he took his seat, he was already squaring off against the Senate's Republican establishment and winning. Invited to a Senate Republican caucus lunch, he was dismayed to learn the party was going to back the U.N. Treaty on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the behest of tribal elders such as Bob Dole and Richard Thornburgh.
Wow, said Cruz, voters hate it when they think U.S. laws are going to be usurped by meddling U.N. bureaucrats, especially on stuff like abortion and homeschooling. He got to work. By the time dessert came around, party leaders were being confronted with mass defections, the treaty was headed for defeat, and Cruz had earned the undying enmity of much of the Republican leadership-most notably John McCain, who would later label Cruz a "wacko bird." Which, apparently, is the PG version of the epithets McCain uses in private. "He fucking hates Cruz," a McCain aide later told GQ.
The wacko bird label has stuck. Though polls vary widely according to who takes them and where, many of them show Cruz with high negatives.
"He can seem a little crazy," says one former senior official in the Bush administration, a Texan himself. "Frankly, I had an unfavorable impression of him personally. You read the stuff he says and he can seem a little grating. He comes across as shrill in large public settings.
"But now I've had some personal meetings with him and I've totally revised my opinion. One on one, he's personable, he's intelligent, and he's very, very genuine. I still disagree with him on some of his political positions and a lot of his strategy and tactics. But I have developed a lot of respect for him. He is definitely no yahoo."
Yahoos for Uncle Milton
Part of Cruz's yahoo image comes from his Tea Party-style positions. Many people still get jolted when a candidate calls not to reform or rein in the IRS but to abolish it.
But an even bigger component of the perception is that he spends too much time tilting furiously at windmills. The best example was his campaign in late 2013 to block a continuing budget resolution unless Democrats agreed to delay or defund Obamacare, spearheaded by Cruz's 21-hour filibuster (which included readings from a pair of unlikely soulmates, Ayn Rand and Dr. Seuss).
Cruz's efforts led to a 16-day government shutdown before Republican leaders-many of whom hadn't wanted a showdown in the first place-blinked. The Washington consensus was that the shutdown was pointless, that Obama would have admitted to being a Kenyan-born Muslim terrorist before giving up the prize legislative achievement of his presidency.
That argument, however, supposes that Cruz became a senator to broker conciliation and compile an impressive legislative box score. That's a fundamental misunderstanding of the senator's strategic goals.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore