The expression refers to almost anyone who disagrees with Cruz. He’s used it in controversies over trade promotion authority, the Export-Import Bank and illegal immigration. Depending on the day, it might refer to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the White House, the federal government, contractors, lobbyists, the media, the Republican Party leadership, or all of the above.
“It’s not that this majority doesn’t get things done,” Cruz said on the Senate floor July 24. “It does get things done. But it listens to one and only one voice: That is the voice of the Washington cartel, of the lobbyists on K Street, of the big money and big corporations.”
In this way, “cartel” is the Texas Republican’s attempt to roll the anti-Washington rhetoric of the last five years into a single potent metaphor. The senator, a double Ivy League graduate, is no doubt conscious of the word in its historical sense: an arrangement among political parties that promotes a common interest. An association between “cartel” and the Mexican drug trade also helps him imply something coordinated, alien and dangerous about official Washington — especially at a time when Donald Trump is surging in the polls because of his stance on undocumented immigrants.
Not that his usage always works. Cruz sometimes defies the textbook definitions of “cartel” to cast the concept in a personal light: Washington as entrenched high-school clique, personally bent on undermining its opponents.
“I get that in Washington people like to play the cynical games, and they like to impugn people’s motives, and that’s the way the Washington cartel works,” Cruz said in a June 30 interview on CNN.
“Cartel” is one of several C-words — “cronyism,” “corruption,” and of course, “career politician” — that are in regular rotation for GOP candidates this cycle. Republicans are inviting voters to fight the system: the cynics, the haters, the pussy-footers, the profiteers.
Cruz, a former college debater, is known to take great pride in his oratory, and it’s clear that he enjoys landing on phrases that make newspaper headlines and Twitter hashtags. But in contrast to “Make D.C. listen,” a rallying cry so entwined in the shutdown battle that it later became the name of a pro-Cruz PAC, the phrase “Washington cartel” can stick out awkwardly on the debate stage and on the stump.
“There are far too many in the Washington cartel that support amnesty,” Cruz said knowingly at the Aug. 6 Republican debate. Shortly afterwards, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor quoted Mean Girls on Twitter.
But “cartel” hasn’t caught on in the Republican presidential field. Marco Rubio used the term in early July to criticize lack of competition in American higher education, but in that instance, he was pulling his definition straight out of the dictionary. Even on Twitter, where #WashingtonCartel has a smattering of interest, some of its adopters actually support Donald Trump.
Just goes to show: it might be easy to criticize Washington, but when a brash, eccentric multimillionaire is running for president, it’s harder to actually compete for outsider status.