Sarah Palin With an Ivy League Pedigree: The Brazenness of Ted Cruz

The Texan is content to alienate voters, GOP leaders, and even Tea Party allies -- but his style is the logical result of repeated conservative failures to rein in government.
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

As he reminds us so often, Ted Cruz is really smart — smarter than the rest of us — and so it may well be that he's pursuing the smartest route to the presidency in this age of degringolade. (That's a super-smart term, one Cruz might use, meaning "the rapid collapse of the old power structure.") Cruz realizes, maybe more than the GOP leadership he is taking on, that the future of the fractious Republican Party is completely in play. The House- and district-directed GOP base no longer cares at all what the "national leaders" or strategists in Washington think; national contenders who traditionally might have had to earn their way to the nomination a la Mitt Romney or Mitch Daniels are no longer treated with much respect. Even Marco Rubio, not long ago a wunderkind insurgent himself, is coming off like a jaded Washingtonian fuddy-duddy these days compared with the Cruz Express.

For sheer brazenness, there is nothing in memory to compare with Ted Cruz. If Barack Obama set a new bar in the Democratic Party by grandstanding his way to the presidency after only two years in the Senate — with less political experience or accomplishment than almost any major candidate before him — Cruz is outdoing even Obama in his flagrant attempt to create a national reputation out of literally nothing, with less than one year in office. He's Sarah Palin with an Ivy League pedigree, and apparently even less shame.

By all appearances, Cruz's main objective is not to take on Obama and the Democrats (that's just a tactic), but to oust the old guard in his own party — even faster than the Tea Party insurgency sought to do after 2010. According to senior-level Republican operatives, Cruz talks frankly of clearing his way for a presidential run, even as he derides, without any sense of irony, the "vanity" of his fellow senators. As The Washington Post noted on Monday, citing GOP senior aides and senators, Cruz is seeking to "purify the party."

That is why Cruz seems not to care at all — in fact, he's quite delighted, writer Jason Zengerle points out — that he provoked party lion John McCain into calling him a "wacko bird" for recklessly smearing Chuck Hagel and filibustering John Brennan. As renegade conservative pundit David Frum writes approvingly of Cruz, "The plan is obvious enough: to emerge as the next acknowledged political leader of American conservatism in the apostolic succession that begins with Robert Taft, continued through Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, and has had no agreed successor since Newt Gingrich's retirement from Congress in 1998."

This is no doubt why, in his grasping at headlines, Cruz is already several degrees of separation away from what most of the country wants, and he seems not to care a whit. According to the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, a solid majority of Americans think the approach that the House and Senate GOP leadership is now pursuing is too radical: They don't wish the debt-limit issue to be tied to legislation that might delay or defund Obamacare. Yet Cruz is going even beyond that leadership strategy in saying he will filibuster his party's own House bill in a quixotic effort to prevent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from stripping the Obamacare-defunding provision from the bill after a cloture vote. This will ensure Cruz headlines for a few more days running up to the October 1 insurance-exchange deadline.

Even former Republican House leaders who supported the Tea Party are aghast at the chaos Cruz and other new insurgents have caused, my colleague Jill Lawrence points out. Former Gingrich Revolution stalwart Dick Armey says he feels bad about all the little Frankenstein monsters he created with his Tea Party-friendly FreedomWorks PAC. "FreedomWorks has kind of gone to an extreme level of animosity" toward veteran House elites, he told Lawrence, "by telling these old guys to just buzz off."

Is this a frightening phenomenon, or is it merely a sign of the times? Both, perhaps. It is scary that the art of governance appears to be dying out, partly a victim of the GOP's Cultural Revolution. It is also unsettling to recall that a half century ago John F. Kennedy was ridiculed for being unready for the presidency after winning two terms in the Senate and three in the House.

Yet as distressing as this bottom-rail-on-top approach to politics seems, and as crazy as Cruz sometimes sounds, there is historical reason for this shift. The truth is that previous generations of Republican insurgents, specifically including Gingrich and going back to the hallowed Ronald Reagan, have failed to rein in the size of government. That's why the Tea Party insurgency, despite many hopeful attempts to note its demise, is no passing phenomenon, as Cruz seems to have realized. And why Ted Cruz may be here for a long time to come.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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