Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at a meetign of the Heritage Foundation, at the Hilton… (Michael Ainsworth/AP )
For 30 long seconds on a Saturday early this month, Ted Cruz stood silent and beaming as hundreds of conservative activists showered him with heartfelt applause in a dimly lighted auditorium. Then he started up again.
“And that reaction right there,” he declared, pointing at the crowd with his thumb and forefinger together, “shows how we win this fight. If I were sitting in the Senate cloakroom, the reaction to that statement would be fundamentally different. I don’t know that I’m quick enough to dodge all the things that would be thrown at me.”
Just like that, Cruz summed up his first seven months as a U.S. senator and exposed the conundrum he represents for the Republican Party: a hero to the conservative base and a worry for the establishment.
Cruz, 42, is a full-bore conservative from Texas whose certitude and combativeness in defense of his positions have made him a rock star to the GOP’s far-right-leaning activists. The comment that brought the crowd to it feet was about shredding Obamacare at all costs.
But that certitude and combativeness also have made him one of the most controversial figures in the Senate, a lightning rod for public and private criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike. The question many are left to ponder as Cruz travels the country targeting President Obama’s health-care law is: What can he realistically hope to achieve in a Senate steeped in tradition and hierarchy as an eloquent yet sharply polarizing figure?
The question is increasingly important, as Cruz is frequently mentioned as a 2016 presidential contender. This week, he released his birth certificate amid questions from some who doubt whether he is eligible to be president because he was born in Canada. But Cruz makes the point that he was a U.S. citizen at birth (his mother was an American born in Delaware), and he promised Monday to renounce whatever right he has to Canadian citizenship.
The 2016 speculation has also been driven by the amount of time Cruz has been spending in early presidential nominating states such as Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. He has made two trips to Iowa this year and plans to visit again in October. On Friday, he will be in New Hampshire to headline a fundraiser held by the state GOP.
But he cautions that not too much should be read into those travels. “In my view, it is way too soon for anyone to be focused on the 2016 presidential election,” he said. Cruz insists that his focus is “100 percent” on the Senate, but that is proving a trickier play.
Not a ‘social club’
“Extreme,”“wacko bird” and “over the line” are some of the words Cruz’s Senate colleagues have used to describe him publicly. He has shown none of the traditional deference that junior senators often adopt when dealing with their more senior colleagues.
In one encounter, Cruz tangled with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a longtime gun-control advocate, during a Judiciary Committee hearing in March. A staunch defender of gun rights, Cruz peppered Feinstein with questions about the Constitution until, in exasperation, she replied: “I’m not a sixth-grader. Senator, I’ve been on this committee for 20 years.” That confrontational approach has not endeared him to many in the Senate, but Cruz said he will not shy away from defending his principles. “I like and respect my colleagues, but the Senate isn’t a social club,” he said.
Allies of Cruz say they respect his forceful opinions. “He brings clarity to every position he has,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
The issue on which Cruz has been most clear and forceful lately is an effort to defund Obamacare that has gained little traction. He is pushing a plan that Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) circulated in July calling for Republicans to refuse to support any continuing resolution or appropriations bill that would fund the health-care law. The current funding measure runs though Sept. 30, meaning the government will shut down after that if Obama does not get a new bill.
At a town hall meeting sponsored by a conservative group Tuesday night in Dallas, where Cruz was thrice interrupted by hecklers, the senator offered an impassioned defense of the plan, suggesting that Republicans could win a fight against the president if they simply dig in deeper. “If you have an impasse, one side or the other has to blink. How do we win this fight? Don’t blink,” he argued.
The applause-winning line that brought the crowd to its feet in Ames was the simple declaration: “There is no more important regulatory reform that we can do than to repeal every single word of Obamacare.” As Cruz explained how he intends to do it, the crowd gushed.
But in the Senate, many of Cruz’s Republican colleagues are less impressed. Some have cited the practical and political consequences of a government shutdown. Others have noted that even in a shutdown, the health-care law would be funded.