Last week’s news cycle began and ended with Ted Cruz. On Monday, a video of Cruz came out, in which he called his fellow Republicans “a bunch of squishes” on gun control. The talk, given at the Tea Party group FreedomWorks’ summit in Texas, prompted The Washington Post’s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin to write a piece called “Don’t be a jerk Sen. Cruz,” calling on Texas’ junior senator to apologize. If that was supposed to chasten him, it didn’t seem to work: By the end of the week, National Review was reporting Ted Cruz might be running for president. He was one of main points of discussion on Sunday talk shows, and James Carville raved that he was “the most talented and fearless Republican politician” in the last 30 years.
That, in a nutshell, is Ted Cruz’s political career: through some combination of luck, bravado, and talent, the man always seems to wind up getting what he wants. Let’s not forget, that just a year ago, the Tea Party darling was a long-shot candidate for senate. He’d never run for office before, and he was going up against the Texas GOP establishment, headed by Rick Perry—not an easy group to outflank on the right. Yet he garnered national approval from Tea Party groups and built an impressive campaign message that he was the “real” conservative in the race. He also got lucky when the primary date was moved back thanks to legal battles, giving his campaign time to build name recognition throughout the state.
Ted Cruz has never forgotten who his audience is and what they want. The Tea Party dominates the Republican Party and Tea Party activists are determined to move the GOP to the right. As the first large-scale survey of the Tea Party shows, activists are relatively unconcerned with the electoral consequences of such decisions; the study shows that fewer than 10 percent of Tea Party activists disagree with the statement “When we feel strongly about political issues, we should not be willing to compromise with our political opponents.” Coincidentally, Cruz started his term telling Fox, “I don’t think what Washington needs is more compromise.”
“The people in my area my district, they look at him as kind of a hero,” says Texas state Representative Charles Perry, a Republican who beat a more moderate GOP incumbent in the 2010 Tea Party wave. Perry approved of Cruz’s tactics and echoed the same ambivalence to the GOP that the Tea Party survey revealed. “The Republican Party platform represents values I grew up under,” he told me. “If the party begins to ignore or change or treat those as if they’re optional, then I can’t be a part of that.”
Plenty of Republican governors have alienated the conservative base with compromise. There were GOP governors like Florida’s Rick Scott, Ohio’s John Kasich, and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez who all supported expanding Medicaid under Obamacare. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie publicly worked with Obama during Hurricane Sandy, while Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal cautioned against some of the extremism that the Tea Party supports, warning the GOP to “stop being the stupid party.”
Cruz doesn’t have to run a state, and he’s capitalized on his ability to stop legislation. In doing so, he appears to go too far, to risk seeming like a fool—only to come out a winner. There was his questioning of now-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, when he speculated that the former Republican senator may have taken money from American enemies in North Korea, an unsubstantiated claim that earned him a public rebuke from John McCain. It got him headlines and greater credibility with his base. Then McCain called him a “wacko bird” and had to apologize. Regardless of whether or not Cruz actually runs for president in three years, he’s getting enormous attention and doing exactly what he promised—shifting the conversation to the right.
While those in Washington may write him off for not playing by the rules, in Texas, he’s seen as shaping the debate. Liberals and conservatives alike attribute enormous power to him. “He’s running everything up there!” one prominent Texas Democrat told me recently. His victories may be missed initially in Washington, but in other parts of the country, he’s building a reputation as a powerbroker.
It can be easy to initially miss his victories. Some liberals were gleeful when, after Cruz offered something close to a constitutional lecture about the nature of the first and second amendments, Feinstein fired back. “I am not a sixth-grader,” she told her junior colleague. “Slapped down!” thought plenty of pundits and left-leaners tired of listening to Cruz’s hardball approach.
But what few realized was that Cruz won the exchange just as much as Feinstein. His supporters used the clip to show how their man was taking down the liberal Democrats running Washington. The National Rifle Association even played a clip of the back-and-forth at the group’s conference, just before Cruz himself took the stage.
When he appeared moments later, Cruz roused the crowd with a talk that seemed one-part-college-lecture, one part-church sermon. “I am looking at an army,” he told the audience. Presidential candidate or not, Cruz is certainly vying to be a general.