Reading the tea leaves

In the past couple of years, Ted Cruz, a former UT law professor and U.S. Senator-elect from Texas, has catapulted himself to national prominence on a very simple premise: Find room to the right of the extremely conservative Republican establishment in one of the nation’s most Republican states. By doing so, Cruz has successfully attracted a great deal of adoration, acclaim and funding from the hyper-conservative Tea Party movement. Riding that wave, he upset Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a runoff primary race last summer and soundly defeated Democratic Senate nominee Paul Sadler in the general election for retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s open seat. Cruz will represent Texas in the Senate for at least the next six years, and is one of the most popular Republican names being tossed around by pundits and news commentators as potential presidential candidates in 2016.

But Cruz has never held elected office before now, so we have no way of knowing for sure what kind of legislator he will be. He has some of the most impressive academic credentials in the Senate, with degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School, and has been nationally recognized as an expert debater since his undergraduate years. But in his campaign for the Senate seat this year, he showed a pronounced tendency to build his platform on political expediency rather than good sense.
In the hotly contested primary election, Cruz and Dewhurst did their best to out-conservative each other, which resulted in them taking nearly identical stances on almost every issue. The reason Cruz prevailed is that he successfully painted Dewhurst as being willing to work across the aisle with Democrats — a charge that many voters would consider a point in Dewhurst’s favor, but not Texans, and definitely not in today’s polarized political climate. By portraying Dewhurst as too quick to compromise, Cruz appealed to a Republican base that hates the opposition more than it supports productive, bipartisan legislation. It worked out well for Cruz in the primary last May, but it was cause for concern for anybody hoping to see our nation’s leaders work together anytime soon.

In the November general election Cruz called for the abolishment of the departments of Commerce, Energy and Education, the International Revenue Service and the Transportation Security Administration. The Department of Education provides much of college students’ financial aid. Cruz called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” in an interview with the Texas Tribune last fall and proposed to gut it by raising the retirement age and privatizing most of the program’s benefits. He’s also claimed that “Sharia law is an enormous problem” in the United States, called both Medicaid and Medicare unconstitutional, and has promised to repeal “every syllable” of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) even if he has to “throw [his] body in front of a train to stop anything short of its complete and total repeal.”

These positions made for great applause lines at Tea Party rallies, but they’re almost completely implausible. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and all five of the government departments he mentioned are here to stay and are widely accepted as being necessary by people not wearing tinfoil hats. And because the U.S. Supreme Court declared Obamacare constitutional, the president won a second term and Democrats held on to the Senate majority, Cruz may want to schedule his railroad tracks outing.

We’re not even going to dignify the “Sharia law” comment with a response.

Anybody who’s heard Cruz speak recognizes his reasoning ability, so it’s hard to believe he wasn’t aware of the irrationality of his campaign rhetoric. The past year showed that he is willing to say whatever he needs to say to energize the conservative base behind him. It paid off, but one can reasonably expect Cruz to moderate his tone now that he’s won. If he hopes to accomplish much of anything as a legislator he will have to ally himself with the Republican establishment he has been criticizing for the past year. They’re eager to have his star power on their side, and he can’t get meaningful legislation passed simply through fiery speeches and refusal to compromise.

Cruz has already shown signs of embracing the party line. About a week after the election he accepted the position of vice chairman for grass-roots operations and political outreach for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a coalition of Republican senators committed to helping other Republican candidates get elected to the Senate.

Cruz has got his eye on the White House. He’s Canadian by birth, so before he can even run for the office something will need to be done about the clause in the U.S. Constitutional saying that only natural-born U.S. citizens can be elected president. But he will also  have to move a lot more to the middle to appease independents and moderates. Hopefully, he’ll start doing so now in his first term in the Senate.