Yesterday at a lunch attended by members of the Senate’s Republican caucus, Ted Cruz reportedly made an unsolicited apology to his colleagues for ruining their weekend. It’s not clear whether most of his fellow GOP senators accepted the apology. As mad as some of them were for having to cancel their plans in order to stay in the Senate over the weekend, many were also furious about the way Cruz’s decision to oppose a deal that would have passed the Cromnibus on Friday led to weekend sessions that also gave Democratic leader Harry Reid the opening that he used to get some Obama administration appointees confirmed before the end of the lame duck session. But Cruz was unrepentant about forcing an up-or-down vote on immigration. Nor is he particularly upset about the way most members of the Senate seem to think about him. While we can debate the wisdom of his positions, no one should be in any doubt as to whether they are making him a stronger candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Cruz came into the Senate in January 2013 determined to oppose a business-as-usual attitude. But unlike most brash freshmen that eventually calm down and realize that the advantages that come from playing by the rules of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs generally outweigh the thrill of being a Capitol Hill bomb-thrower, Cruz hasn’t changed his tune. His is, as the invaluable Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News this week, a conservatism that revolves around making statements rather than “getting things done.” Most Republicans are rightly concerned about using their new majorities in Congress to show they can govern effectively. Thus, “statements” such as Cruz’s demand that every senator put themselves on record as opposing the president’s extralegal executive orders on immigration came at too high a price since it would have meant the possibility of another damaging government shutdown.
Most senators understand the shutdown Cruz helped engineer in 2013 was a bad mistake and want no part of a repeat performance. Even more to the point, they are outraged that Cruz has never acknowledged that his tactics were mistaken and furious about his belief that another attempt would be a good idea. After two years in his company, they like him even less than they did when he arrived, a sentiment shared by many pundits and party establishment figures. All of which seems to have made no impression on Cruz whatsoever. If everyone in Washington (except for a few fellow insurgents like Senator Mike Lee), hates him, that’s fine with Cruz.
Why doesn’t he care? The answer has less to do with his obviously thick skin than it does with his ambition and vision for his party. The whole point of his Senate career is to oppose getting things done in a system that he believes is set up to perpetuate liberal big-spending and taxing government. Cruz’s goal is to overturn all of that.
More to the point, his tactics are designed to establish him as the pre-eminent leader of the Tea Party movement and the conservative base. Standing on principle on every conceivable issue is a politics of statements rather than accomplishments, but it is potential electoral gold in terms of GOP presidential primary voters. Many Republicans believe with good reason that the key to winning in 2016 is in bringing in fresh voices and faces from outside of Washington, especially the party’s deep bench of successful Republican governors. But Cruz is running against the capitol from the inside and with more publicity than any of the governors has managed.
Indeed, the more hated he is by his Senate colleagues and the more opprobrium heaped upon him by party establishment figures or even wise pundits like Krauthammer, the better it may be for his potential presidential campaign. In a wide field of potential challengers, Cruz is still not taken seriously by many observers because they think him too inexperienced and, most of all, too extreme to win a general election.
Both assumptions may be true. Electing yet another freshman senator without executive experience (i.e. Barack Obama) may strike many people as an absurd idea, especially for Republicans who have spent the last six years lamenting Obama’s incompetence. But ideological purity is the sort of thing that will always play in a primary especially when someone as clever and relentless as Cruz articulates it. If Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and perhaps Mitt Romney are competing in a hidden establishment primary, Cruz is running to win the Tea Party/base primary. For those who hadn’t noticed, Cruz is winning that primary hands down right now. With every hate bomb tossed in his direction from offended fellow senators, his lead grows and his once laughable hope to win the nomination becomes a realistic if not necessarily likely scenario. Count on him spending 2015 reinforcing that image. Which means that fellow senators need to fasten their seatbelts and hang on for what should be an even bumpier ride over the course of the next 12 months.