Ted Cruz, Unlikely GOP Savior
Barack Obama has an unseemly habit of lashing out at congressional Republicans who oppose his policies by accusing them of putting “party ahead of country.” But as much as the president’s rhetorical tic angers GOP officials, Ted Cruz infuriates them even more.
Privately—and often publicly—Republicans on Capitol Hill accuse Texas’ freshman senator of putting his own ambition ahead of party and country. Until recently, their feelings about him could be summed up by invoking Elizabeth Barrett Browning—provided the 19th century British poet had an evil twin: “How do we hate you, Ted Cruz? Let us count the ways.”
Now, however, it seems that GOP officialdom is stuck with Ted Cruz. The cliché about politics and strange bedfellows doesn’t begin to describe how weird this is. The only logic that explains it is the ancient adage about the enemy of my enemy being my friend. The enemy in this case being not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but instead a certain New York tycoon with a famous hairdo, a penchant for insults, and a fetish for a wall along the southern U.S. border.
But for many prominent Republicans, having to choose between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump is an exquisite form of torture. Cruz’s colleagues find him officious, selfish, and maddening. They doubt his sincerity. They hate how he grandstands. They despise him for impugning the integrity of his own party leaders.
The bill of particulars is well-known in Washington. It starts with how he treats his colleagues and the institutions of government. Deriding “the Washington cartel” may thrill right-wing talk radio hosts—and may have more than a kernel of truth—but it hardly endears him to colleagues. “Love him in Iowa, hate him in D.C.” was a pillar of Cruz’s campaign messaging.
Republicans understand that kind of thing. What they don’t condone is Cruz calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “a liar,” which he did last year during the budget fights. In his short Washington career, Cruz helped engineer one government shutdown and tried to engineer another over federal spending and Obamacare. But with no hope of achieving his goal legislatively, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle concluded that he was playing to the mob. And they say these things on the record.
“Ted Cruz at his core is an opportunist,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer. “When it came time to say what Ted Cruz has done in the Senate, what he's done is run down other Republicans.”
“If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate,” Graham quipped at this year’s Washington Press Club Foundation dinner, “and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you.”
“I just don’t like the guy,” George W. Bush said last October.
“Nobody likes him,” added Bob Dole. “He doesn’t have any friends in Congress.”
Actually, he does have one or two pals, which John McCain underscored by calling Cruz and his tiny posse “wacko birds.” If you’re keeping count, that’s three of the last four Republican presidential nominees who dislike him. Cruz has an answer for that—at least a partial answer—and it’s this: Dole and McCain lost because they weren’t conservative enough.
Republicans win the White House, he says, when they nominate a Reagan-like conservative, not a compromising creature of the Senate like Dole or McCain. But Cruz doesn’t mind undercutting his fellow Senate conservatives either. Arkansas Sen. John Boozman took Cruz to task for being a “bully.” New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte accused him of threatening government shutdowns for personal publicity. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson called his strategy “intellectually dishonest.”
Again, these are not liberals saying these things. Boozman, Ayotte, and Johnson are conservatives elected—as was Cruz—with Tea Party support back home. And as much as his Senate colleagues despise him, House Republicans have even less regard for Cruz.
Rep. Peter King of New York has compared Cruz to a “carnival barker.” Former House Speaker John Boehner referred to Cruz as “that jackass” and “a false prophet.” Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania calls Cruz “a rigid ideologue.” Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, objecting to how Cruz played Senate and House Republicans against one another during the shutdown, said, “Thank God he wasn’t there fighting at the Alamo!”
“He’s a nasty guy,” Donald Trump added in a presidential debate. “Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him.”
Ah, but there’s the rub—the source of that comment. GOP officeholders find Trump just as obnoxious as Cruz. But at least Cruz is a conservative whose policy views are known. Trump is a blank slate, with views that are all over the map. Choosing between them has many Republicans reaching for suicide or homicide metaphors. Asked whom he would pick between them, Peter King said, “I hope that day never comes. I will jump off that bridge when we come to it.”
Before he joked about Ted Cruz being murdered in the Senate floor, Lindsey Graham once described a choice between Cruz and Trump this way: “It’s like being shot or poisoned. What does it really matter?”
But as the July convention draws closer with Cruz having the only chance to catch Trump in the delegate count, the Republican establishment is realizing that it does matter. Graham himself endorsed Cruz, one of five former 2016 presidential candidates to do so. He joins Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker. (Among the 2016ers, Ben Carson and Chris Christie endorsed Trump.)
Watching a Senate Republican take the plunge for Cruz is not a pretty sight, though. On Wednesday, Jim Risch of Idaho became only the third senator to endorse Cruz for the GOP nomination—if that’s what he actually did.
In an interview with Blitzer, Risch suggested that Cruz was the best remaining alternative. Hearing himself say this aloud, a nonplused Risch blurted out, “Did I just endorse, Wolf?”
“You sort of said you prefer him over the two,” Blitzer replied. “That sounds like an endorsement, doesn’t it?”
“I guess,” Risch said. “It depends on your definition.”
Not every member of the GOP establishment sees it this way.
“If it came down to Trump or Cruz, there is no question I’d vote for Trump,” said former New York mayor and 2008 presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Sen. Richard Burr reportedly told party donors at a closed-door fundraiser that he’d vote for fellow senator Bernie Sanders over Cruz, a statement he later implied was made in jest. All Burr has said publicly is that he’ll back the eventual GOP nominee.
Does such ambivalence imply a desire for a brokered convention that manages to steer the nomination away from Cruz and Trump? Perhaps. That’s certainly the fantasy of the Republican establishment. It’s not something you’d want to put on a bumper sticker, but what they’re thinking, increasingly is: “Ted Cruz, the devil we know.”