Is Ted Cruz the Real Deal or a Passing Fad?

In office barely a year, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a hot political commodity, but what does his future hold?

History is littered with personalities who rose and faded quickly. Icarus flew too close to the sun before his wings melted in a warning against soaring too high. Before Joseph McCarthy’s name became synonymous with baseless accusations, he had the power to wreck careers. In the opposite corner, then-State Senator Barack Obama delivered a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and just 4 years later was elected president. So, there is no set formula that a political newcomer is destined for greatness or obscurity.

Cruz’s influence in 2014 is real: The Senator was a runner-up for Time‘s Person of the Year. Such a bestowal would have been an acknowledgement from a publishing giant that Ted Cruz is an undeniable force.

Although it is early in his career, grand gestures, outlandish statements, and impassable alternatives have been more accurate descriptions of Ted Cruz’s first year in the Senate than policy innovator. In the short term, this has made Cruz a political celebrity who cannot be ignored. While the last page of his story has yet to be written, he has the markings of a politician who could rise too high too soon.

The most obvious area where Cruz lent his influence was in October’s government shutdown. His 21-hour speech from the floor of the U.S. Senate about the need to defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA) preceded the shutdown, making him the face of the GOP during the intractable conflict.

To be sure, Cruz’s behavior during and preceding the shutdown won him the plaudits of many conservatives in the GOP. However, that was the most that could have been gained from such an act. Since the Republican Party only controls one half of one branch of government needed to even begin a defunding effort, the task was ultimately futile.

The Senator might have known as much, but if his real objective was to build up his profile by invigorating his base, then he was indeed successful. Cruz supporter Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com, wrote on his website that it was Republicans refusing to support Cruz’s plan that made the Republicans’ eventual defeat “so predictable.” However, Erickson’s commentary ignores the fact that even if every Republican in the Senate supported him, they still lacked the numbers to even send a repeal of the ACA to the White House.

While the last page of his story has yet to be written, Cruz has the markings of a politician who could rise too high too soon.
Carl Wicklander
Earlier in 2013, Cruz was one of several Republicans to voice dissent against immigration reform. With a Republican-held House, reform was not likely to pass, despite a reform bill’s passage in the Senate. It was in the Senate version that Cruz included an amendment that would deny a pathway to citizenship for any of the suspected 11 million undocumented residents — an amendment that essentially defeated the purpose of the bill.

Indicative of the praise heaped on Cruz for his 2013 antics was an end-of-the-year editorial in the American Spectator. In highlighting Cruz’s accomplishments, it was noted that Cruz “introduced measures that kept the bill from reaching more than 70 votes, reducing the immigration bill’s chances in the House.” So, Cruz is credited not with specifically defeating anything (at least not in a chamber where he has his vote), but keeping the defeat of his side from being worse.

On the major foreign policy issue of the year, Cruz, among many other Republicans, were voices of dissent against an American-led intervention into Syria. In August, Cruz voiced his opposition to the proposed policy on the boisterous grounds that America “is not al Qaeda’s air force.”

His overall position has been a little more malleable. As recently as June, Cruz issued a press release outlining a more ambitious track, saying the US needed:

“to be developing a clear, practical plan to go in, locate the weapons, secure or destroy them, and then get out. The United States should be firmly in the lead to make sure the job is done right.”

It is important to remember that Cruz never openly called for military intervention, but at the time of his June statement, the Pentagon estimated 75,000 soldiers would be necessary to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. By advocating such a plan, Cruz was proposing a significant American investment in a conflict that the American people, then and later, opposed in large numbers.

On the one hand, Cruz sounds like there is no place for American intervention in Syria. On the other hand, he explains a desire for US involvement that could easily spiral into a de facto intervention.

So far, Cruz has been largely inoculated against political fall-out. Talking points and a reserve of credit built up among the party’s base can take him far, but not all the way.

If he runs in the 2016 presidential primary, what will he point to as a real accomplishment?

It is still too early to tell if Ted Cruz is destined for the footnotes of history as a charlatan or as a real political player. To be an effective leader in 2014 and beyond, Cruz will need to begin producing more substantive policy victories instead of grand gestures that impress his base, but accomplishes little else.