SENATOR Ted Cruz of Texas says he came to Washington to “shake up the status quo”. Elected with Tea Party backing in 2012 after defying his state’s Republican establishment, he vowed to confront both parties over their addiction to “unsustainable” public spending. To fans he is a prayer answered: a Princeton- and Harvard-educated debate champion with the brains to take on any opponent and the guts to speak truth to power. There is talk of a presidential run in 2016.
Recent days have been quite the ride for Mr Cruz, as he staged a 21-hour speech on the Senate floor to showcase his loathing of Obamacare and to press fellow Republicans to shut down the government rather than fund that health law. He has certainly shaken up the capital. When not attacking Mr Obama the 42-year-old lawyer has used the spotlight to ponder why, in his view, many of his colleagues are cowards who hate democracy.
Some senators find voters an “annoyance”, Mr Cruz says, and many Republicans are “defeatist”. A distressing number “throw rocks” and launch personal attacks–a low game that Mr Cruz has no intention of playing. Perhaps something in the Washington air makes senators “stop listening to the American people”, he mused during his marathon speech. Perhaps it is a desire to attend “the right cocktail parties”. Mr Cruz does not go to many cocktail parties, he confided, before turning to the TV cameras to read bedtime Biblical proverbs to his young daughters watching back home, followed by “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr Seuss.
Meet Ted Cruz, bomb-throwing reactionary
Some call Mr Cruz a bomb-throwing radical. In February, livid Democrats compared the Texan to another Senate populist, the Commie-hunting Joseph McCarthy, after Mr Cruz wondered aloud whether fees paid by an investment fund to Chuck Hagel, Mr Obama’s nominee for defence secretary, might have involved dollars from North Korea or Saudi Arabia–though he conceded there was “no evidence” that they did.
Yet if Mr Cruz has shaken up the status quo, it is not in the way that he promised. He does not speak unpopular truths; he panders. He assures nervous conservative voters that there is no need for changes they dislike or fear. Take Obamacare. America’s health-care crisis is, at its simplest, an insider-outsider problem. Many people have ample or even lavish health insurance, the costs of which are hidden. (The cost of employer-provided insurance comes out of salaries, but only a fraction of it is shown on your payslip. The cost of Medicare falls on taxpayers.) A minority have bad or no health insurance (a quarter of the people in Mr Cruz’s home state are uninsured), and risk ruin if they fall sick. Obamacare seeks to insure millions more Americans and rein in sky-high medical costs. Lots of insiders suspect that change will hurt them, whether via higher premiums, skimpier coverage or government “death panels” with the power to unplug Grandma.
During his 21-hour speech the Texan spoke up, again and again, for those insiders. He read out letters and tweets from constituents who have insurance, but fear losing their coverage or finding it rationed, or paying more to subsidise the poor. He declared Obamacare a Trojan horse, potentially allowing “your friendly neighbourhood federal bureaucrat” to join doctors’ meetings. He quoted small-business owners claiming that they would go bust if forced to offer their workers health insurance. He cited trade union bosses angry that Obamacare gives employers incentives to cut working hours. Almost every example involved someone with something to lose. When confronted about the plight of uninsured Americans, Mr Cruz replies that their best hopes lie in good jobs or cheap private-sector policies to cover catastrophic events, and not in government subsidies. Yet his revulsion for subsidies is selective: he has little to say about the unsustainably soaring cost of taxpayer-funded health care for the elderly–as used by many of his supporters..
On immigration Mr Cruz rejects reforms backed by such Republican rivals as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a fellow son of Cuban immigrants. Mr Rubio backs a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Not Mr Cruz. Instead he would triple the number of agents on the southern border, quadruple their fleets of helicopters and drones and complete a double-layer border fence: a plan to fortify the status quo. Mr Cruz mocks “climate-change alarmists”, assuring Americans that they need not fear rising levels of greenhouse gases–ie, they need not trade in their tank-sized Chevy for a Prius. On gun rights, he is an absolutist, rejecting any qualification of the constitutional right to bear arms.
Mr Cruz has spent years preparing. At an Iowa rally his father Rafael, a fire-and-brimstone pastor, recalled how the teenage Ted gave some 80 lectures on the constitution and free markets to Rotary Clubs and the like. The senator remains astonishingly self-assured. But he has learned to be charmingly self-deprecating, too. He can be funny. In Iowa, Lexington watched him pull off a surprisingly good impersonation of his five-year-old daughter being told to shush, as her father granted yet another interview. Oh, it’s always politics, politics, politics, Mr Cruz quoted her as grumbling, stamping his cowboy-booted feet.
These are unhappy times for Mr Cruz’s rivals. Every day brings anonymous briefings from Congress, calling the senator a menace whose bumper-sticker policies–“Repeal Obamacare”, “Seal the border”–seem designed to hurt fellow Republicans if they point out that he is promising the impossible. Yet when Republican grandees call Mr Cruz “wacko” and big-city papers call him a fact-twisting demagogue, his fans love him all the more.
If Mr Cruz does seek the presidency in 2016, cool logic is against him. There are not enough tribal conservatives to send him to the White House, and he is too extreme to win over many independents. But cool logic does not govern his party’s grassroots. Expect to hear much more from him.
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