Who’s the most despised member of the U.S. Senate, even by members of his own political party?
The latest issue of GQ magazine features Jason Zengerle’s PROVOCATIVE PROFILE of freshman Sen. Ted Cruz:
In less than a year, Texas Republican Ted Cruz has become the most despised man in the U.S. Senate. He’s been likened to Joe McCarthy, accused of behaving like a schoolyard bully, and smeared by senior members of his own party. Is this any way to get ahead in Washington? Well, Cruz is no dummy—just ask him—and his swift rise might prove that it’s the only way.
It’s hard for Ted Cruz to be humble. Part of the challenge stems from his résumé, which the Texas senator wears like a sandwich board. There’s the Princeton class ring that’s always on his right hand and the crimson gown that, as a graduate of Harvard Law School, he donned when called upon to give a commencement speech earlier this year. (Cruz’s fellow Harvard Law alums Barack Obama and Mitt Romney typically perform their graduation duties in whatever robes they’re given)….
Cruz, 42, arrived in Washington in January as the ultimate conservative purist, a hero to both salt-of-the-earth Tea Partiers and clubby GOP think-tankers, and since then he has come to the reluctant but unavoidable conclusion that he is simply more intelligent, more principled, more right—in both senses of the word—than pretty much everyone else in our nation’s capital. That alone isn’t so outrageous for the Senate. “Every one of these guys thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room,” one senior Democratic aide told me. “But Cruz is utterly incapable of cloaking it in any kind of collegiality. He’s just so brazen.”
Little more than a month after Cruz was sworn in, Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, likened him to Joe McCarthy for his conduct during Chuck Hagel’s confirmation for secretary of defense. Without presenting a shred of evidence, Cruz insinuated that Hagel, a fellow Republican, was on the take from America’s enemies. Because Hagel had declined to reveal the source of a $200,000 payment, Cruz suggested, how do we know it didn’t come from the North Korean government? Or Saudi Arabia’s? Even South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, also a Republican, called Cruz’s line of inquiry “out of bounds.”
And then there was the moment, just a month later, when the Judiciary Committee was debating the assault–weapons ban: Cruz was trying to get it through Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein’s thick skull that there was this thing called the Second Amendment and that it deserved the same respect as the rest of the Bill of Rights. He made his point by rattling off other amendments and the rights they protected until Feinstein bristled, “I’m not a sixth grader. I’ve been on this committee for twenty years…. I’ve studied the Constitution myself. I am reasonably well educated, and I thank you for the lecture.”
For a while, veteran Republicans groused in private about the new guy. But it boiled over when Cruz joined Kentucky senator Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA—an act of protest against Obama’s drone program. John McCain, already seething over Cruz’s treatment of Hagel, called them “wacko birds.” “He fucking hates Cruz,” one adviser of the Arizona senator told me. “He’s just offended by his style.”
The “wacko bird” dig, however, has only endeared Cruz more to his party’s purist wing. Already his fans are nudging him to think about a presidential run in 2016, and he’s nudging right back, making trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. He’s even embraced “wacko bird,” reclaiming McCain’s knock as a badge of honor…
Ted Cruz doesn’t look much like a wacko bird. With his pomaded black hair and trim suits—the kind you might expect on a former partner at an international law firm, say, or the husband of a Goldman Sachs executive—the more appropriate avian metaphor would seem to be a peacock. He doesn’t sound much like a wacko bird, either. Cruz is a dazzling orator, speaking not merely in precise sentences but complete paragraphs—no teleprompter, sometimes not even a podium—and name-dropping everyone from Reagan to Rawls (as in John, the late Harvard philosopher).
But as Cruz and his supporters define it, “wacko bird” describes more of a state of mind. Or as Cruz put it on the Senate floor…in the midst of yet another fight with McCain, this time over the rules for negotiating a budget: “It has been suggested that those of us who are fighting to defend liberty—fighting to turn around the out-of-control spending and out-of-control debt in this country, fighting to defend the Constitution, it has been suggested that we are wacko birds. Well, if that is the case, I will suggest to my friend from Arizona, there may be more wacko birds in the Senate than is suspected.”
He might be right. This certainly feels like a wacko-bird moment in Washington, and maybe in America, too. It’s a time when governmental breakdown and public antipathy for the profession of politics have combined to create a perverse incentive structure for congressional Republicans—one that punishes politeness and cooperation and rewards antagonism and obstruction. So far Cruz has proposed no major legislation and has shown little interest in changing that. He seems content accomplishing nothing because, in Cruz’s view of the federal government, nothing is the accomplishment.
Contrast this approach with the recent fate of that other precocious Republican in the Senate, Florida’s Marco Rubio, who spent the first half of this year crafting bipartisan immigration reform—the kind of grand, reach-across-the-aisle gesture that could serve as a springboard to a presidential campaign. And for his trouble, he wound up with no law (his bill passed the Senate but is seemingly DOA in the House) and a dented reputation among the very people who put him in office. Cruz, a second-generation Cuban-American with a story so singular that it verges on the novelistic, was one of the most outspoken opponents of Rubio’s bill.
“Stopping bad things,” Cruz told me, “is a significant public service.”
It’s unclear exactly how many wacko birds are in the Senate right at this moment, but by Cruz’s count there are at least three—Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and himself. And three, he says, is a lot. “I do think the impact of a handful of principled leaders who are fearless in the Senate is significant, and I think it’s significant even going from two to three. If you have three, you pretty quickly get to five or six. Five or six is over 10 percent of the Republican conference, and that’s enough to move a conference and move the Senate.”…
All that bluster, though, has definitely had an impact in other ways. Some Republicans are so spooked about drawing a conservative primary challenger in next year’s midterms—or, as it’s now called in Texas circles, “being Ted Cruzed”—that they’ve moved even farther to the right, paralyzing the Senate’s GOP leadership. Exhibit A: John Cornyn, Cruz’s fellow senator from Texas. “He has Cornyn just frozen on everything,” one senior Senate Republican aide grumbled to me. “A member of our leadership just kind of takes his marching orders from this guy who’s been here for a day!”
That may be a problem for Republicans, but not necessarily for Cruz. “We’re in a moment when the combination of being hard-core and intelligent is really at a premium,” says National Review writer Ramesh Ponnuru, who’s been friends with Cruz since they went to Princeton together. “Because the two things that conservatives are tired of are politicians who sell out and politicians who embarrass them by not being able to make an account of themselves.” In this arithmetic, Mitt Romney is the sellout and Sarah Palin is the embarrassment—and Cruz is the great new hope who brings the virtues of both without the liabilities of either.
Should he run for president, in 2016 or beyond, Cruz’s strategy will be to superglue himself to the conservative base and hope it carries him to the GOP nomination. It’s been tried over and over since Reagan—and it has failed every time. Just not enough wacko birds out there. Then again, the men who have tried it—from Pat Robertson in 1988 to Rick Santorum in 2012—possessed nowhere near Cruz’s political acumen, not to mention his life story. Or, to put it the way Cruz himself might: None of them were Ted Cruz.