Ted Cruz’s delicate balancing act

January 30, 2013

How’s this for a day’s work in the Senate: Introduce a bill to repeal the health-care reform law, vote against Sen. John Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of state and pen a letter to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel urging him to back off on the issue of gun control.

That was freshman Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s Tuesday. And it suggested a desire to keep the conservative base squarely behind him, even as the senator has laid a foundation for a relationship with the GOP establishment.


(David J. Phillip/AP)

Cruz won his seat in 2012 by running to the right of establishment-backed Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in what was really the biggest upset of the cycle. So on the one hand, it’s not surprising that he is pushing a conservative agenda during his earliest days in the Senate.

But it’s still notable. Why? Because when Cruz beat Dewhurst, his national stock skyrocketed. He was a bright spot in a cycle that otherwise produced a lot of Republican disappointment. So, even before arriving in the Senate, Cruz had experienced the kind of exposure that gets people speculating about the possibilities of leadership positions and higher office down the road.

But keeping those doors open means not pigeonholing oneself or alienating either end of the GOP spectrum. Cruz seemed to recognize and embrace that necessity early on when he signaled a willingness to work with the GOP establishment as a vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

That’s not something every conservative would do. Former South Carolina GOP senator Jim DeMint, for example, spent years as an NRSC-agitator when he backed conservative insurgents against more electable Republicans.

From a political perspective, it looks now like Cruz is trying not to alienate himself from either the establishment or conservatives. But it’s hard to pull that off in the long term without irking some fellow Republicans along the way.

It’s worth noting that things like opposing Kerry and spearheading an effort to dismantle President Obama’s health-care law are red meat issues that fire up the conservative base and gin up support among activists. And asking Emanuel to keep his “efforts to diminish the Bill of Rights north of the Red River,” for example, is a great way to stir grass-roots donor enthusiasm.

But  in reality, they don’t make much of an impact in the Senate. Kerry was going to sail to confirmation regardless of Cruz’s vote. And Cruz even acknowledged that his push to repeal the health-care law stands no chance of passage in the current Congress.

Cruz's office says the positions he has adopted in the Senate are a reflection of the conservative campaign he ran.

“Sen. Cruz campaigned as a conservative, so of course he is going to act, speak, and vote like one in Washington," Cruz spokesman Sean Rushton said. "He was elected to push for limited government, pro-growth policies, and to defend a strong U.S. position in the world. His voting record reflects the common-sense views of most Texans and many Americans.”

What will really speak volumes about the kind of Senate footprint Cruz wants to leave is what he does on more consequential issues where his vote could influence the outcome of a measure, or the NRSC needs him to intervene in a GOP Senate primary that looks potentially divisive.

On gun control and immigration, two issues that will seize the Senate’s attention in the coming months and could trigger close votes, Cruz has telegraphed a conservative posture.

As he demonstrated during Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence, he’s as strong an opponent of new gun control proposals as there is in the Senate. On immigration, Cruz, whose father immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, said he has “deep concerns” about the path to citizenship a bipartisan group of senators recently proposed.

In many respects, Cruz the conservative candidate has become Cruz the conservative senator. We’ll find out in the coming months and years whether or not that’s a reputation he will cement in the chamber's weightiest negotiations.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · January 30, 2013