Move over Rand Paul. Ted Cruz may be cruising to the biggest loss in his short career as a U.S. senator and surpass you as the pre-eminent conservative in Congress. The Texas Republican is threatening to outfilibuster his colleague from Kentucky, who last spring seized the floor for 13 hours to denounce the domestic use of drones in a thrilling “stand with Rand” moment that had everyone marveling that we could practice democracy as it was done in the good old days.
There are a few reasons Cruz could lap Paul this week. Paul had the bad luck to prevail, winning a clarification that there are limits on the president’s power to kill Americans “sitting at cafes” who don’t pose an imminent threat. Cruz’s issue is hotter: defunding President Barack Obama’s health-care law. He also may be able to boast of going down in a Custer-like valiant and lonely last stand. Martyrdom is in conservatives’ DNA.
Cruz’s biggest advantage is a doomsday clock ticking down the hours to a government shutdown. It’s a prop that provides a dramatic arc to an otherwise unwieldy story involving hard-to-follow congressional procedures. On Sept. 20, the House, inflamed by its right wing, passed a bill that funds the government until Dec. 15 but denies money for the Affordable Care Act. It is a dead letter in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Enter Cruz, who, to make his point, is going to have to filibuster the bill he urged the House to pass.
There’s no good end to this for anyone but Cruz. Republicans will suffer generally if the government shuts down and they don’t get something for their efforts. Obamacare will still be funded but care for wounded warriors may not.
This gambit, which threatens his fellow Republicans more than Democrats, would make no sense if Cruz wanted to govern rather than check off the Senate box on his way to the White House. He is a Man in a Hurry who doesn’t need friends to thrive as much as he needs enemies to thwart. Cruz’s hand was barely off the Bible before he went after the head of the defense secretary-nominee, Chuck Hagel, for his supposed antagonism toward Israel.
On gun control, Cruz put forward the wrong reading of the Second Amendment as completely unrestricted and challenged Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to prove otherwise. Her response was to thank him “for the lecture” and remind him she wasn’t “a sixth-grader.” Still, the display of pedantry lit up phones to members, the vote on the background checks was delayed, and Cruz’s side won. The bill remains dead, even though there was a mass shooting a few blocks from his Senate office last week and the devastated parents of the children massacred in Newtown, Connecticut, are once again wandering the halls of Congress begging for passage.
A defeat on Obamacare is just what Cruz needs to solidify his outsider status. His Ivy League credentials are small data points in his eloquent narrative of his life, which emphasizes his journey as the embodiment of the American and -- slight -- Canadian dream.
The son of Rafael Cruz, who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba to wash dishes in Texas for 50 cents an hour, Rafael Edward Cruz was born in 1970 in Calgary, where his father had gone to profit from the oil boom and married for a second time. That boom went bust and the senior Rafael, now a preacher in a Dallas suburb, enrolled his son in a conservative debating society where the younger Cruz memorized the Bill of Rights and excelled at mock Constitutional Conventions. Cruz’s father wept at his son’s Senate swearing-in ceremony.
These days, the senator tells his father’s story at almost every stop in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he is playing to his real audience, as opposed to his Washington one that is suspicious of so much ambition.
He isn’t always named but seems to be the intended recipient of criticism such as this jab from Republican Representative Tim Griffin of Arkansas who said Senate Republicans are “good at getting Facebook likes, and town halls, not much else,” or this from Senator Bob Corker, who referred to Cruz’s alma maters in a Twitter post: “I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton but I can count. Defunding box canyon” -- that’s Southern for the roach motel you can get into but can’t get out of -- “is a tactic that will fail and weaken our position.”
Cruz flies proudly as one of the uncompromising members Senator John McCain called “wacko birds.”
However the next few days play out, Cruz will be center stage. He’s said a hundred times that the White House would be responsible for any shutdown, even as he tries a doomed cavalry charge right into one.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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