Ted Cruz is on a roll.
The tea party firebrand from Texas has been in the Senate all of seven months, but he’s already looking like a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Last week, Cruz won a straw poll at a major gathering of the party’s conservative wing in Denver with an impressive 45 percent of the votes, far ahead of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Before that, he wowed social conservatives in a campaign-style visit to Iowa, whose caucuses are the first stop on the long trail that leads to the nomination.
“I saw a lot in Ted Cruz, and I liked what I saw,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa evangelical leader whose endorsement has carried weight in earlier caucuses. “If he proves to be the real deal, he will be a phenomenon.”
Naturally, Cruz responds to talk of a presidential candidacy with the obligatory aw-shucks: “My focus is entirely on the Senate.” But he doesn’t say no. So watch what he does, not what he says. He’s on his way back to Iowa next week and New Hampshire after that, unusual destinations for a freshman senator whose day job is looking out for Texas.
Isn’t a presidential campaign a stretch for a 42-year-old first-time officeholder whose initial media coverage painted him as a nutty combination of Joseph McCarthy and Sarah Palin?
After all, Cruz’s first moments in the national spotlight came during Chuck Hagel’s nomination hearing to become Defense secretary, when Cruz asked whether the nominee might be hiding secret income from North Korea. Later, he attacked his Republican colleagues as unprincipled “squishes” on gun control. Fellow Senate Republican John McCain dismissed him as a “wacko bird.”
But Cruz is wacko like a fox. He is driven by his belief that government spending is the problem, and he says he has a strategy for changing the country’s direction. He believes that the tea party movement, if sustained and better organized, could force the Republican establishment to the right – where, in his view, it belongs.
Will he succeed? If not, it won’t be for lack of brains. At Harvard Law School, he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review (like Barack Obama), and constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who taught Cruz, told me this week that the senator was “among the smartest students I’ve ever had.”
So far, Cruz’s career in Washington has focused on a series of high-profile “no” votes. He voted against raising the federal government’s debt ceiling, against aid to states ravaged by Superstorm Sandy and against the nomination of John F. Kerry as secretary of State. Along with most other Republicans, he voted against the immigration reform bill that would grant a path to citizenship to immigrants who entered the country illegally. And now Cruz is leading a campaign to press Republican senators to threaten a government shutdown in October unless President Obama’s healthcare program is entirely defunded — a proposal several conservatives have denounced as suicidal.
But Cruz cheerfully shrugs off the criticism of his GOP colleagues as the complaints of an entrenched establishment made up of, in his words, “a lot of people that don’t like to be held accountable.”