"Be liked and you will never want," said Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. "That's the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked!" Of course, the great tragic figure of the American theater was terribly wrong about that. But in politics, personal relationships still matter, even if the days when Lyndon Johnson would call up a senator and sweet-talk him into changing his vote on a bill are long gone.
I'm thinking about this because Ted Cruz—Tea Party hero, up-and-comer, future presidential candidate—is suddenly finding himself on the receiving end of a whole lot of hostility from House Republicans. By way of context, there's a broad consensus that Cruz is, as George W. Bush would put it, a major-league asshole. He's not someone who wastes time and energy being nice to people or cultivating relationships that could be useful down the road. He's pretty sure he's smarter than everyone, and doesn't mind making it clear that's how he feels. People consider him rude and condescending. This was apparent from the moment he got to Washington, and it was true back in Texas as well. But if you agree with his politics, then does that matter?
It sure seems to matter today. On the surface, there's a tactical dispute about whether Cruz is working hard enough to get the Senate to defund Obamacare now that the House is about to do its part by passing a continuing resolution that does the defunding deed. Because he expressed some resignation about the CR's prospects in the Senate—which is tantamount to admitting that Republicans will not be able to flap their arms and fly to the moon, no matter how hard they try—Cruz is being hit left and right, or more properly, right. House Republicans feel that Cruz encouraged them to force a government shutdown over defunding, and now that they're doing their part, he doesn't seem to be doing enough on his end. Republican Rep. Sean Duffy fumed that Cruz had "abused" and "bullied" House Republicans. His colleague Peter King said, "If he can deliver on this, fine. If he can't, he should keep quiet from now on and we shouldn't listen to him," which is actually strong words from a congressman to a senator. And check out this, from the National Review:
House insiders say a handful of House Republicans cursed Cruz in the cloakroom on Wednesday, and a leadership source says angry e-mails were exchanged among GOP staffers who consider Cruz to be a charlatan. "Cruz keeps raising conservatives' hopes, and then, when we give him what he wants, he doesn't have a plan to follow through," an aide fumes. "He's an amateur." Another aide says, "Nancy Pelosi is more well-liked around here."
Holy cow. That's like somebody on the Red Sox saying that Alex Rodriguez is more well-liked in the Sox clubhouse than one of his teammates. So would this have happened if Cruz was a nicer guy? My guess is that there would be far less of this open antagonism.
And this tells us something about Cruz's long-term prospects. He got where he is by being smart and aggressive, and having the good fortune to be in Texas at a time when the Tea Party was ascendant. In high school and college he was a champion debater, an activity in which winning means getting in front of people and talking your opponents into submission. But running for president (which Cruz would plainly like to do one day) means getting a whole lot of people to like you. Fundraisers, reporters, other politicians who might endorse you, power brokers from the highest party pooh-bah down to every block captain in Des Moines—you've got to court them and make them love you so they'll work their hearts out. Politicians like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who excel at that personal side of politics have an immense leg up.
It's one thing to be personally awkward, like Al Gore or Mitt Romney—that makes it harder, but not impossible. But if you're someone who inspires this kind of venom, that's another matter entirely.