Yes, we know the 2008 presidential election is years in the past and will not come around again. The question is, does Sen. Ted Cruz know this?
The question arises because the junior senator from Texas, in hot pursuit of the presidency, has chosen a trail blazed by Barack Obama six years ago. Obama was in the midst of his first Senate term when he barged into a field that featured Hillary Clinton, then a second-term senator from New York, and several other seasoned veterans of national politics. The word was “audacity,” and it was right there in the title of Obama’s book.
When the upstart from Illinois emerged the Democratic nominee that summer and the winner in November, many foresaw a wave of emulation. We now have Cruz, the constitutional crusader, generating White House buzz in just his second year in office, just as Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts does ditto on the left. And that’s not to mention old-timers like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, running hard for national notice as they finish their fourth year in the Senate.
Few now recall the days when senators and governors felt they needed the credential of at least one re-election before launching themselves at the White House. That notion now seems as ancient as the 19th century bromide about how “the office seeks the man.”
Even in this age of galloping ambition, the 43-year-old Cruz rides ahead of the pack. While Obama liked to quote Martin Luther King’s line about “the fierce urgency of now,” Cruz seeks to embody it at every turn. He speaks for those conservatives most fiercely urgent about battling the current president at every available moment. He has made their cause his own. He did it in October 2013, when he engineered a brief and partial shutdown of the federal government over Obamacare. This past weekend, he tried to do it again.
This time, the immediate target was Obama’s recent executive action deferring deportation for more than 4 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally. Calling it “executive amnesty,” Cruz insisted on resisting the bipartisan budget deal that would fund immigration operations through February (and the rest of the federal government through September). Never mind that Republican leaders of the House and Senate had negotiated the deal with their Democratic counterparts and the president, and never mind that a bipartisan majority in the Senate planned to proceed with it.
Like every senator, Cruz is entitled to vote any way he wishes on the budget deal. Warren, among others, joined him in opposing it. But Cruz wanted also to force a point of order on the constitutionality of a budget that pays for a policy Cruz regards as unconstitutional. And he wanted the Senate to stay in session all weekend to deal with both issues, regardless of long-laid plans for this pre-holiday weekend.
Cruz, in just two years as the hotspur of the Senate floor and committee rooms, may have already set a record for rapid alienation of colleagues — on both sides of the aisle. But his latest foray produced a new low in his intramural relations. His confreres did not appreciate either his freelancing or the self-righteous disdain he showed for their distress.
But beyond that, Cruz proved heedless in another way with real consequences. By forcing a Saturday session, he created extra innings of Senate floor time not anticipated by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. And that opened a window of procedural opportunity for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who used it to advance two-dozen controversial presidential appointments. These nominations might have languished when Republicans took over as the Senate majority in January. Now, they are poised to win approval by the Democrats in the waning hours of their majority status. They include a new surgeon general, a new head of the immigration agency and a batch of federal judges who may be on the bench for decades.
Cruz’s office asserts that Reid would have moved as many nominees as he could regardless of what Republicans did. And the Texas senator can maintain that none of the fallout from his disruption really matters when compared to the principles at stake. Surely there are those who agree and honor him for his stand. But if he is also counting on being a martyr and a hero in the eyes of party activists — the people who will choose the party’s next leader — he may find his timing is off.
The Obama example is a powerful goad to the young and the driven in both parties, just as John F. Kennedy’s was to another generation of politicians half a century ago. But will voters in 2016 be looking for another gifted orator from Harvard Law to rise from the Senate’s back benches?
After eight years of a president who reached the pinnacle of power almost overnight, the country may be looking for something different. As a candidate, Obama was inspiring — an avatar of youth and idealism. As president, he has often seemed less than fully up to the task, lacking the savvy and personal political skills that might have helped him succeed.
In 2016, some may be looking for another telegenic sensation who has just burst on the scene — too big for the confines of one statehouse, or too dynamic to stew in the Senate. But as a rule, in choosing presidents, American voters have alternated between older faces and younger, between the fresh and the familiar, and between the rousing and the reassuring.
It will not take much study to decide which kind of candidate is on offer in Cruz.