Why attacking Ted Cruz just makes him stronger

Meet Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). You can call him "wacko bird" or "Obamaphobic." No, really, he's fine with it.

As Cruz's political opponents continue to apply pejorative labels to the outspoken conservative freshman, his response has been this: If what I believe means that I am (insert label here), then so be it. And I'm not alone.

It's exactly the kind of rebuttal that will boost Cruz's brand on the political right. And that brand is already flying high.


(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The latest exchange came on Tuesday, when Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) charged that Cruz of suffers from "Obamaphobia." Menendez, an advocate of a comprehensive immigration reform, was reacting to Cruz's remark that President Obama and the path to citizenship he is "insisting" upon represents the "biggest obstacle" to passing reform.

"I think he has Obamaphobia,” Menendez told MSNBC. “The reality is that it is the ‘Gang of Eight’ that came together -- four Democrats, four Republicans -- and said that we need a path to citizenship.”

Cruz took to Twitter later Tuesday to respond to Menendez:

Cruz offered a pretty similar response earlier this year to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who labeled the freshman senator and other conservative lawmakers "wacko birds" for supporting a marathon filibuster over the Obama administration's drone policy.

“If standing for the Constitution, standing for liberty, standing for conservative values makes one a wacko bird … then I am pleased that birds of a feather flock together," Cruz said in a March speech. At the Conservative Political Action Conference later that month he added: “I think there are more than a few other wacko birds gathered here today.”

In his brief time in the Senate, Cruz has become a hero among conservative activists, which is no surprise considering the heaping portions of political red meat he has served up for them. By magnifying criticism from McCain and Menendez, who are no heroes on the right, Cruz does two things to help himself with conservatives.

First, he perpetuates a them-versus-us narrative, which is a good way to fire up an activist and donor network. Second, he is using the name-calling to rally others to his corner. Cruz is arguing that opponents are calling him names because of his beliefs. He's challenging Americans who share his principles to stand with him, by insisting that a dig against him is by extension one against them, too.

In a very short time in the Senate, Cruz has quickly established himself as one of the most polarizing members of Congress, with the right hailing him as a hero and the left and even the middle viewing him with varying degrees of suspicion.

For now at least, that seems to be the way he likes it.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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