Love Ted Cruz or hate him, you most likely know who he is. That's the Texas Republican's great achievement in his first nine months as a senator, and also the reason he may never make it to the White House.
Cruz is reveling in his role as a disruptive force, asserting repeatedly that he is doing what Americans want despite multiple polls suggesting otherwise. His leadership status among tea party House members and his 21-hour floor speech denouncing Obamacare made him the face of the federal government shutdown. Now, as he calls for health law changes and other conditions as requirements for raising the debt ceiling, he's in contention to be the face of a devastating default.
What with the Canadian-born Cruz's insistence that he's eligible to be president and his steps to renounce his Canadian citizenship, there's little doubt he's interested in the presidency. Another clue is his disregard for Senate niceties. He's not exactly cultivating his colleagues or studying procedural ins and outs.
There are many celebrities who take a listen-and-learn approach at the start of their Senate careers, among them Hillary Clinton, Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, and, yes, Barack Obama, who worked with Republican partners on dry issues like government transparency and nuclear proliferation. Cruz is on a reverse trajectory – rushing headlong toward celebrity with a confrontational style that's more common in the House and on the campaign trail than in what is often called, sometimes even seriously, the world's greatest deliberative body.
The founders intended the Senate to serve as a "necessary fence" against "the 'fickleness and passion' that drives popular pressure for hasty and ill-considered lawmaking," as retired Senate historian Richard A. Baker and the late Neil MacNeil put it in their book, The American Senate. George Washington called the Senate the saucer in which hot coffee from the House would cool. GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander says it is the brake on the freight trains that barrel over from the House.
Confounding tradition, Cruz is the engineer on one of those freight trains – the de facto ringleader of the GOP House crusade to tie government funding to the demise of Obamacare. It was always a futile endeavor. As far back as mid-summer, Cruz and like-minded colleagues faced questions about their endgame, given the realities of a Democratic Senate and president. They said the House would be the tip of the spear and give them leverage. Exactly what kind of leverage, and why they expected President Obama and his party to sign away a legacy sought for decades, they never explained. "You incite the cavalry, but then you don't lead the charge anywhere," as one Republican put it to me.
Angry Senate Republicans are now wondering how to escape their box canyon, their cul-de-sac, pick any no-exit metaphor. A frustrated Haley Barbour used three within seconds in an interview this week. "His tactics and strategy have led to a dead-end street," said the former Mississippi governor and national Republican Party chairman. "It's very bad legislative strategy. It's a blind alley. It's a brick wall. And it's succeeded in taking Obama's failures out of the public consciousness."
The ire of the GOP establishment is a political boon for Cruz at the moment. There is an inverse relationship between his popularity within the Senate club and his hero status among populist conservatives. Yet that identity could be limiting even in the GOP primary process. Particularly as it moves to large, diverse states like Florida, candidates are increasingly called on to win both base conservatives and more moderate, more establishment Republicans. "That's the electability primary. Right now that's his big challenge," GOP strategist Kevin Madden, a former Mitt Romney adviser, says of Cruz. In his view, it's also the most important part of the equation – who can best unite all factions of the party and attract independents and even some Democrats in the general election.
The risks of the Cruz way are already on display in Virginia, which is heavily reliant on federal jobs and federal contractors and where Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has dropped in polls since the shutdown started. Cucinelli, himself a tea party favorite, made a point of leaving a weekend event before Cruz spoke on the same stage. That didn't stop Cruz from gushing about Cuccinelli as smart, principled, and fearless and calling him "my friend." A clip of the appearance has already made its way into an online Democratic attack ad, part of the party's "Cuccinelli-Cruz Alliance" theme.
Cruz could be a champion fundraiser for the GOP next year. But if Virginia is any indication, he may not be welcome on the campaign trail in purple states or districts – the very places where presidencies are won and lost.