No U.S. Senate debut in memory has so teemed with tumult and controversy as Ted Cruz’s first days on the job.
But by the time the Texas freshman departed Washington for Texas for the first break in his nascent Senate career, the loquacious two-time Princeton University national debate champ had been silenced.
It wasn’t a sanction imposed by the Senate – though, to judge by the condemnation being heaped upon him, it seemed that banishment might have been in order were it within the Senate’s power.
Rather, it was his own vocal cords that, for a few days, quieted Cruz.
“I’ve lost my voice entirely, perhaps from cheering too much at last night’s State of the Union,” croaked Cruz, passing when his turn came to question Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at a Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration.
It was a joke, of course, but, in fact, Cruz had lost his voice the night before, declaiming nonstop against President Barack Obama’s speech as he made his way through the veritable bazaar of open microphones in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall on his way to an interview with Sean Hannity.
It was earlier that day, before a party-line vote of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary, that Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida admonished Cruz, seated diagonally across from him. Nelson said Cruz had “gone over the line” and violated the “comity and civility” that had been a hallmark of the committee, in questioning Hagel’s patriotism and honesty and in an unfounded assertion that Hagel was, “in essence, being cozy with Iran.” A Rubicon was crossed, and the Washington metanarrative went from Ted Cruz, nuisance, to Ted Cruz, menace.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., suggested obliquely that there was a new Joe McCarthy in their midst, referring to questioning of Hagel that “was reminiscent of a different time and place when someone would say: `I have here in my pocket a speech that you made on such-and-such a date’ — and, of course nothing was in the pocket. It was reminiscent of some bad times.”
In a tone-setting column, Frank Bruni in The New York Times called Cruz “the GOP’s nasty newcomer … an ornery, swaggering piece of work.”
For Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson, Cruz was “sweaty with ambition, devoid of charm.”
On MSNBC’s popular “Morning Joe” show, host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida who had taken an instant dislike to Cruz on his arrival in the Senate for what Scarborough considered Cruz’s demagoguing on the gun issue, was, morning after morning, volubly disgusted by the newcomer.
“This is a guy that could have such a positive impact on the future of the Republican Party,” said Scarborough, “but he seems to be going for head of the Sugar Land tea party chapter in Texas. I just don’t get it.”
If they intended to bury Cruz, it had the opposite effect.
Six weeks after being sworn in, Ted Cruz returned to Texas a commanding figure, the center of attention in the Senate and the national media, loathed by the Washington establishment and, for that, all the more celebrated by conservatives nationally who found in him a champion both very smart and, it seemed, utterly fearless.
He had emerged from his baptism by fire more powerful for it, not only in national conservative circles but, by leveraging his new-found status, perhaps also in the Capitol he had so unsettled.
And all, Cruz said in an appearance this week at a Leander gun manufacturer, because he had done just what he told Texas voters he was going to do.
“Washington has a long tradition of trying to hurl insults to silence those who they don’t like what they’re saying,” said Cruz, his voice restored. “I have to admit I find it amusing that those in Washington are puzzled when someone actually does what they said they would do.”
“I haven’t seen anyone that good,” said Tripp Baird, director of Senate relations for Heritage Action for America. “The guy literally day one was talking about guns, immigration and literally dismantling Chuck Hagel, all in one day.”
“The movement worked their tails off to get him elected, and I think he has met their expectations big time,” said Baird.
What Cruz understands, said Baird, is that the way to win in Washington is “take the fight to the other side. If you’re not willing to throw a punch, you’re just preparing for a fight you never end up getting in engaged in. What good are you? Go home.”
If Texas had wanted to send a collegial, well-mannered conservative to Washington, they would have elected Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Instead, they chose Cruz. It’s why they chose Cruz.
“He’s not playing by the rules of the Senate,” said University of Texas political scientist Daron Shaw, who has known Cruz since they both worked on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. And, said Shaw, “as I think about it strategically, I’m not sure there’s any real downside.”
“Ted is extremely smart, and I think people who are looking at Ted right now are confused, because they are used to two types – the traditional Republicans who tend to do a little better with the media, who tend to be more articulate, more intelligent, `the grown-ups,’ and then you get these crazy tea party guys,” said Shaw. “With Ted, it’s hard. They don’t get it. Here’s a two-time national debate champion, who clerked for (former Supreme Court Justice William) Rehnquist. Here’s a guy who knows how to put words together.”
He’s an oops-proof Rick Perry.
“Ted will never forget his third point,” said Shaw.
And, said Shaw, “the positions he is articulating are absolutely aligned with his electoral constituency. He is not to the right of the people who voted for him.”
Shaw also said the tut-tutting by senators about Cruz reveals, “an utter lack of awareness of how unpopular they are. How dare he come here and what? It’s less likely we’ll pass a budget?”
“He is clearly going to have the opportunity to move and move quickly,” said Shaw.
“He’s off to a fast start,’ said Sen. John Cornyn, his senior colleague from Texas and the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.
In addition to Armed Services, Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general, serves, along with Cornyn, on the Judiciary Committee, where he is the ranking Republican on the Constitution Subcommittee.
“Sixty percent of the senators have been here 10 years or less, so the old days of waiting months or longer to make a maiden speech on the floor, to speak up at a hearing, that’s over. That’s good,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the subcommittee.
Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, was speaking after a hearing, on the day of the State of the Union, at which Cruz had effectively cross-examined a Justice Department witness about why murder rates are so much higher in cities like Chicago, with tough gun laws, than in cities without them, like Houston.
“He makes a valuable contribution,” said Durbin. “I was saying to my colleague, Sen. Franken, ‘Ted Cruz is going to keep me on my toes.’ He’s sharp, and we’ve had a good relationship from the start.”
“I don’t think he’s violated anything,” said fellow freshman Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who sits next to Cruz on Judiciary. “He’s a bright guy, and he’s hitting the ground running, and that’s a good thing.”
“I think Ted has dived into the job in a very effective way, and I think probably his greatest asset is just his really sharp sort of disciplined legal mind and how he brings that to things like the Hagel nomination,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana.
Cruz was asked to be on the executive committee of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, the engine of conservative policymaking in the Senate. He was named vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“He’s a new face of the party,” said Vitter.
But what of old notions of deference?
“That’s the history of the Senate,” said Vitter. “I think it’s been changing for a while, and I’m very, very happy that Ted is pushing the envelope further, because I think that’s largely hogwash that a senator should spend the first two years not opening their mouths, so I appreciate and support his being active on a lot of stuff immediately.”
“It used to be that if you violated the basic norms of the Senate, which Cruz has done from before he was sworn in, there was some price to pay. Now, there is no price to pay,” lamented the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, co-author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.”
“We’ve seen plenty of people come in and try to blow up the place in recent years. (Utah Sen.) Mike Lee and (Kentucky Sen.) Rand Paul obviously come to mind. But I don’ t think I’ve seen anybody who did anything like Cruz,” said Ornstein, “Ted Cruz is unprecedented. I suspect it’s not an aberration — that’s his personal style, and at different points he’s going to drive (Sen. Majority Leader) Harry Reid crazy and, even more, he’s going to drive John Cornyn and (Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell crazy.”
It was with Cruz and Co. in mind, said Ornstein, that Reid and McConnell recently reached a deal, approved by the Senate, to make it easier to end a filibuster blocking consideration of a new bill on the floor if both leaders and seven senators from each party agree.
“This is the Ted Cruz/Rand Paul/Mike Lee protection amendment, when the leaders want to move on something and you’ve got the skunks at the garden party, … threatening to hold it up, they can expedite action,” said Ornstein.
But, he acknowledged, “by and large, the fact is they don’t have any real way – his colleagues, especially his Republican colleagues – of using carrots or sticks to try to pull him back to some level of discipline, which you’d like to see. If John Cornyn tried to distance himself from Cruz, it could backfire big time.”
The energy in the party comes from those who are delighting in Cruz’s performance. Thursday night he headlined the Cuyahoga County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner, a major Ohio event. In March, he will be the culminating speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, the biggest, most important event of its kind, effectively certifying him as the hottest ticket on the American right.
“Ted is the new marker for conservatism,” said Shaw.
McConnell and Cornyn, both of whom are up for re-election in 2014, need Cruz more than he needs them.
Even as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another young, Cuban-American tea party favorite, was on the cover of Time (“The Republican Savior”) and offering the official GOP reply to the State of the Union, it was Cruz who had conservatives’ pulses pounding.
“They were seen as being two very similar Latino conservative senators from big Sun Belt states, but they are developing very different public identities,” said Jack Pitney, a congressional scholar at Claremont McKenna College. “Rubio being the repairer of the breach, moving into outreach, and Cruz being a firebrand.”
But Pitney believes Cruz would be well-served to tone it down a bit.
“I think his mistake was that he was too direct — he could have made the same point more diplomatically,” said Pitney. “The trick in Senate language is calling someone an SOB while seeming to praise him.”
“He’s a little yappy,” Shaw agreed. “Sometimes he’s scoring debating points. I don’t think you can wean that out of somebody.”
Pitney said there is a close-to-home precedent for Cruz’s brusque approach to quickly seizing power in the Senate – former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who preceded Cornyn in the Senate.
In 1985, Gramm’s first year in the Senate, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced budget bill was the highest-profile piece of legislation to become law. But, as The New York Times reported in in 1986, “Gramm has repeatedly defied congressional norms and gotten away with it. Earlier this year, when he was on a television program with Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, Gramm described the New York Democrat as `one of the weakest’ supporters of national defense in Congress.”
”You’re one year in the Senate, fella, you don’t do that to another senator,” Moynihan scolded Gramm. “But,” the Times wrote, “in Gramm’s view, you can do almost anything to another senator if you feel he is wrong.”
Twenty-seven years later, the Sunday before the inauguration, it was Cruz and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, debating the Hagel nomination on “Meet the Press.”
Concluding the conversation, host David Gregory steered toward the convivial denouement that is the convention of those Sunday talk shows.
“All right, we will leave it there,” said Gregory, turning to Schumer. “You spent your morning with Cruz, and then you get to hang out with Beyonce as chair of the Inaugural Committee.”
“Oh, wow, “ Schumer beamed, “and Kelly Clarkson. I love Kelly Clarkson. Whoa.”
But then Cruz, with the deftness of a champion debater, took the seconds allotted for pleasantries to stick the knife in Schumer.
“And, David, let me point out, every one of those issues Chuck just mentioned for Hagel, he disagreed in his record with Chuck Schumer on Israel, on Iran, on Hezbollah. Hagel’s record is directly contrary. And I’m always skeptical of confirmation-day conversions. I understand it is difficult to oppose a president of your own party. Chuck Schumer has been a terrific defender of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but I think this Hagel nomination is very concerning.”
The smile never entirely left Schumer’s face, but you could tell he was making a mental note to never again to let his guard down with Cruz.
“Cruz proved himself to be needlessly combative, lecturing and tone-deaf,” wrote The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart of the encounter.
But that wasn’t the way Daniel Horowitz, writing at redstate.com, saw it.
“Much to the dismay of the media, we are no longer bringing a Lamar Alexander to a Chuck Schumer fight. We are bringing a Ted Cruz,” wrote Horowitz. “And no, we will not wait dutifully for 5 years until our voice will be heard through Senator Cruz.”
“D.C. was not ready for someone who didn’t come to play ball but instead redefine the playing field,” said Luke Macias, a San Antonio political consultant who helped elect several tea party freshmen to this session of the Texas House. “He knows Texas voters desire an outsider who cares more about what the voters think and less about the political pundits.”
Jonathan Tilove joined the Statesman in December as chief political writer. Before that, he spent 25 years as a Washington correspondent. He returned to Washington earlier this month to report on Texas’ newest senator in action.