It’s hard to imagine a more divisive political figure in the United States today than Ted Cruz.
The freshman US Senator from Texas drives liberals and Democrats crazy. If anything, he drives many of his fellow conservatives and Republicans – that is, the members of Congress trying to compete with President Obama through traditional legislative means – even crazier.
He’s the face of a newly-revived tea party movement that’s as much a threat to the establishment GOP as it is to Democrats. And as much as any other individual in US politics today, Sen. Cruz was responsible for the 16-day partial federal shutdown and up-to-the-edge government default, cheerleading House tea partiers to the detriment of Speaker John Boehner’s position.
US Rep. Peter King (R) of New York says his fellow Republican is “either a fraud or totally incompetent” for having instigated a shutdown strategy – focused on killing the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) – that had no chance of succeeding.
Yet for all the broken political crockery strewn along Pennsylvania Avenue between Capitol Hill and the White House, there’s no one who has been more successful at articulating his message, gathering a substantial minority of like-minded lawmakers to his cause, and riveting the attention of political activists, pundits, and those in office feeling the broad disgruntlement of the American electorate today.
As political professionals in Washington – and those voters paying close attention – catch their breath after the recent unpleasantness, everyone wants to know what Sen. Cruz is thinking now, what his plans are.
“There’s an old saying that ‘Politics, it ain’t beanbag.’ And, you know, I’m not serving in office because I desperately needed 99 new friends in the US Senate,” he said on ABC’s “This week” Sunday. “Given the choice between being reviled in Washington, DC, and appreciated in Texas, or reviled in Texas and appreciated in Washington, I would take the former 100 out of 100 times.”
The deal worked out to avoid default and get all government employees back to work restores government funding until Jan. 15 and raises the debt limit through Feb. 7. In other words, a crisis situation may have been averted but not solved.
“Will you rule out pushing to the brink of another shutdown by saying you would block funding for the government unless Obamacare is defunded?” ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked Cruz. “Will you do that again?”
“I would do anything and I will continue to do anything I can to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare,” Cruz replied. “What I intend to do is continue standing with the American people to work to stop Obamacare, because it isn’t working, it’s costing people’s jobs, and it’s taking away their healthcare.”
“Standing with the American people?” Among the largely-conservative electorate in Texas, perhaps, but not necessarily among the broader majority – which may have problems with Obamacare and its startup troubles, but clearly was opposed to fighting it with a government shutdown or threat of default.
Still, Cruz has surpassed Sarah Palin and others as the champion of the tea party right. “Stand With Ted Cruz” is the fund-raising rally cry of the Tea Party Express.
“I don’t expect him to moderate. We don’t think he should moderate at all,” Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, told the Dallas Morning News. “One thing about Congress, there’s no CEO. Everybody’s an independent contractor. Everybody answers only to their constituents who elected them to office. And Cruz has struck a chord with a lot of people.”
A lot of like-minded people, that is.
While the tea party is less popular than ever, with even many Republicans now viewing the movement negatively, the Pew Research Center reported this past week that Cruz’s own popularity has soared among tea party Republicans.
Among this group, his popularity has risen 27 points since July – from 47 percent to 74 percent.
That was certainly true in San Antonio Saturday, where Cruz received an eight-minute standing ovation from about 750 people in an appearance organized by the Texas Federation of Republican Women.
“After two months in Washington, it's great to be back in America," he quipped.
"We saw what can happen when the American people unite, when the American people stand up," Cruz told Reuters after his speech. "What the American people want is economic growth and job creation. They are crying out for something that fixes all the enormous damage that Obamacare is causing."
That’s a potent message that resonates with many Americans. And yet the messenger himself may see an increase in personal toxicity.
A Gallup poll during the government shutdown found that Cruz had gained significant name recognition, but the percentage of Americans with an unfavorable view of him had doubled to 36 percent from 18 percent in June.