Washington — As Donald Trump and Republican rival Ted Cruz battle it out on the way to the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1, a favorite attack by Mr. Trump is that “nobody likes” Senator Cruz, particularly in Congress. He can’t deal. The Texan “stands on the middle of the Senate floor and can’t make a deal with anybody,” Trump said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
That’s not idle chatter, even if it’s typical Trumpian broad-brushing.
From a former president, to former House and Senate leaders, to sitting members of Congress, “establishment” Republicans are sounding alarms about the likability and deal-ability of the tea party darling who led the way to a partial government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act in 2013.
Monitor interviews with more than a dozen senators bear this out, though not all jump on the dump truck and some are more diplomatic about their criticisms than others. Where views more starkly diverge is whether a President Cruz would be as ideologically unbending as a Senator Cruz, with some observers expecting no appreciable change and others suggesting that the presidency would force him in a more pragmatic direction.
Senators don’t like to criticize their fellow senators, and several pointed to Cruz’s strengths – his intellect, passion, and humor. When asked about Cruz, Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, paused. Then she pointed out that no Senate Republican has endorsed the Texan, despite the fact that they have all come to know him since he took office in 2012.
“It’s not helpful to the level of debate in this country, to have a member of this body trashing the Senate rather than working within the Senate to make it more responsive and to reform whatever he may see as its deficiencies,” Senator Collins said, as she rode the Senate subway to her office last week.
Her colleague, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, was far less tactful. “He’s not a problem solver. When you think of problem solving, the last person that comes to mind is Ted Cruz. Everybody’s a problem but him,” said Senator Graham, who, after dropping out of the presidential campaign, now supports Jeb Bush.
One senior Republican labels Cruz a “neo-nihilist” who tears down, rather than builds.
In a speech on the Senate floor last summer, Cruz called his own party leader, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, a liar. This simply is not done in a place where strict decorum is still the order of the day, and it angered many Republicans. One reason Republicans are going on the record about Cruz is because they are so concerned that he will get the nomination.
Cruz, for his part, frequently refers to his colleagues as part of the “Washington cartel.”
The renegade wears his flamethrower status as a badge of honor, joking with voters about needing a “food taster” when he sits down to a meal in the Senate dining room. His supporters, meanwhile, love the fight in him. An e-mail request from the Monitor to his campaign went unanswered.
But if unbending ideology and derision characterize Cruz’s short tenure in the Senate, what might they portend for a Cruz presidency?
Some observers contend that what you see is what you’ll get, while others think that he may well bend – or at least have to mend some fences.
“I can’t necessarily say that past is prologue,” says Sen. Thom Tillis (R) of North Carolina, who sits on the Judiciary Committee with Cruz and admires the way the attorney-senator “pins down” witnesses, particularly in confirmation hearings. Senator Tillis was backed by the Tea Party Express in a tough race in 2014, and calls Cruz “an asset” on the committee.
But Tillis points out that being a senator is not the same as president, and then adds, “I would be hopeful that whoever emerges as the Republican nominee recognizes that working with us produces a far better result for the nation.”
While Tillis says he has not clashed with Cruz, he adds that rebuilding burned bridges is “one of the factors” that a President Cruz would have to deal with.
This point, that a senator and a president are two very different jobs, is key to those who think that relations between Cruz and establishment Republicans in Congress would improve if the tea party champion were to become president.
No incentive to play nice
Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Houston, points out that Cruz had absolutely no incentive to play along or try to accomplish anything when he got to the Senate three years ago.
First, he ran a campaign as a principled conservative who wasn’t going to give an inch. Second, he wanted to be a national player. “I think he realized that waiting nine months to give your maiden floor speech and keeping your head down wasn’t a path he wanted to take.” Then-Sen. Barack Obama had the same realization.
But just as important, says Mr. Mackowiak, the Senate, at that time under Democratic control, was a “graveyard” for any real accomplishments by a minority party. “The incentive instead was to be a bomb thrower, to develop your outside game, not your inside game.”
Mackowiak points to Cruz’s intense admiration for President Reagan. The consultant believes that Cruz wants to emulate the “morning in America” president. To do that, he would need a legislative agenda that would require cooperation from congressional Republicans – and depending on the math, also Democrats.
“Maintaining a poisoned relationship with leaders of both houses would be insane. He would never do that,” Mackowiak says.
But others are not so sure. They point to a new era of politics in which long-term relationships are not as important as short-term coalitions on issues. They look at the angry voter – on both the left and the right – who is tired of the establishment.
And most important, they look at Cruz himself. Not only has he stood his ground, even if it’s been a losing ground, on issues such as defunding Planned Parenthood, killing the Iran nuclear deal, and defeating a Senate immigration bill. He also promises up and down to stick to those positions.
Neither will he run to the “mushy middle” in a general election campaign, he says.
“The positions he’s taking are resonating with people,” says a conservative senator-in-arms, Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama. “They’re tired of talk.”
It may well be that establishment Republicans in Congress bend to a President Cruz. Notice how Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin has reached out to the rebellious hard-right Freedom Caucus that drove out “establishment” Speaker John Boehner last fall.
‘Mixture of true believer and strategic player’
A President Cruz would likely put enormous pressure on a GOP-controlled Congress to govern from an ideologically rigid position, and that Congress would feel an enormous amount of pressure to cooperate with him, says James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
If that’s the case, says Professor Henson, expect to see immediate pushback from Cruz on such issues as the Affordable Care Act, gay marriage, and abortion rights in ways that test the Supreme Court – where he argued eight cases as the Texas solicitor general. Cruz has been deeply critical of the high court, and may challenge it by supporting state efforts, working with Congress, or even through executive order, Henson says.
Whether Ted Cruz, the president, would be like Ted Cruz, the senator, gets down to the “mixture of true believer and strategic player” in his political profile, says Henson. So far, the two have worked hand-in-hand – his rigidity has served him politically.
“One can look at Ted Cruz and speculate that his political career up to this point has been predicated on upward mobility, and that once he got to the highest office in the land, he might exhibit a bit more pragmatism,” Henson says. “That’s not out of the question, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
What it comes down to, he says, is what Cruz really wants and what motivates him, and who he is as a person. No one knows the answers to those questions better than Ted Cruz.