Early this spring, when rumors began circulating that freshman Senator Ted Cruz of Texas might run for president in 2016, liberals found the idea just as delightful as their Tea Party counterparts did—though for different reasons. What could do more to hurt the Republicans’ comeback chances than a candidate who’s so extreme that his own caucus-mate, John McCain, publicly labeled him a “wacko bird”? If Cruz ran and lost in the primaries, he could either become a disruption and embarrass the party or force the eventual nominee to move way to the right. If he somehow won the nomination, he’d surely be the second coming of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Run, Ted, run!
Cruz’s rise to national notoriety had been sudden and, for many outside the Tea Party, baffling. Just one year ago, Cruz was a long-shot challenger in the Texas GOP Senate primary, an obscure, second--generation Cuban American and Ivy League–educated solicitor general. He had never run for any office, he displayed no discernible charisma or charm, and he spoke in a style more professorial than rabble-rousing. But his message was pure Tea Party gospel. He swore he would never betray it. This was just what Texas Republicans wanted, apparently, and Cruz pulled off the upset.
Months after arriving in Washington, Cruz had probably made more enemies than most of his senior colleagues collect in decade-long careers. In February, Cruz falsely claimed that the Iranian government had “publicly celebrated” when President Barack Obama nominated former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, for defense secretary, then went on to air unsubstantiated allegations that Hagel was doing business with U.S. enemies in North Korea, earning McCain’s enmity. In closed-door meetings with Republican colleagues during the gun-control debate, Cruz advised them to stop being “a bunch of squishes,” which many did not appreciate. At press conferences on the Hill, Cruz developed a habit of hijacking the proceedings and holding forth while senior Republicans waited their turn.
To most observers—liberals, Democrats, and old-school Republicans alike—Cruz personifies what’s sinking the GOP brand. But that’s because they don’t understand, as Cruz does, what makes the Tea Party tick. In April, the Prospect published findings from the first major political-science survey of Tea Party activists. (The lead author, William and Mary political-science professor Ronald Rapoport, is my father.) The central conclusion: Tea Partiers do not want compromise. Four-fifths of the activists agreed with the statement “When we feel strongly about political issues, we should not be willing to compromise with our political opponents.” (Only 10 percent disagreed even “slightly.”) They don’t want to win for the sake of winning or just to beat the Democrats. They expect their politicians to do two things: stand inflexibly firm on bedrock issues like gun rights and set fire to the establishment. The pragmatic interests of the Republican Party are of little interest to Tea Party activists; 23 percent don’t identify as Republican at all. If you’ve wondered why Tea Party Republicans are so unyielding, now you know: It’s because that’s what their supporters elect them to be.
Cruz’s surpassing arrogance, his refusal to hold his tongue or abide by Senate decorum, and his devotion to the Tea Party platform—the qualities that led many to dismiss his chances in national politics—are precisely the qualities that make Tea Party activists go weak in the knees at the thought of a President Cruz. These folks don’t expect their politicians to get things done; they send them to Washington and to state capitals to prevent things from being done. The national Tea Party’s agenda is—at least for now—far too extreme to enact. The Tea Party’s real power lies in electing Ted Cruzes and Rand Pauls who can throw a wrench into almost anything those socialists in Washington, D.C., are trying to do. Cruz relishes the role; he’s made his name by loudly opposing gun control and Hagel and immigration reform, not by sponsoring or supporting anything of substance.
The Tea Party, as we’re learning, plays by its own rules. Back in March, most observers were convinced that Cruz had finally gotten his comeuppance after he devoted several minutes of a hearing on background checks for gun purchases to lecturing Dianne Feinstein, the four-term California senator, about the purpose of the First and Second amendments. “I am not a sixth-grader,” she informed her junior colleague when she finally had the chance to speak. Slapdown! pundits and liberals said. What they didn’t realize was that Cruz had won the exchange just as much as Feinstein had. His supporters used the clip to show how their man was raising hell in Washington. National Rifle Association members applauded a video of the back-and-forth at their annual conference in May. In their eyes, here was a brand-new Tea Party senator daring to talk down to a liberal icon who’d famously watched two colleagues die from gunshot wounds—and during a gun-control hearing! It wasn’t inappropriate or unappealingly pushy. It was what they had elected him to do.