After leading a losing and disastrous gambit that shut down the government over Obamacare last year, Senator Ted Cruz brushed his critics aside. “I’m not serving in office because I desperately needed 99 new friends.” Fair enough — no one would confuse him for a Dale Carnegie groupie. But the fact remains that to be an effective senator, the Texas Republican needs to get other members to work with him. And, at the moment, the collective membership of the world’s greatest deliberative body would rather stick needles in their eyes.
Last week, Cruz brought the 113th session of Congress to a painful close, keeping senators in D.C. for a Saturday session, pressing a “constitutional point of order” which attracted just 22 votes, and paving the way for Harry Reid to speed consideration on dozens of nominations for President Obama. Cruz ultimately apologized to his fellow Republicans for the schedule “inconvenience,” while Democrats took to Twitter thanking him for making possible the approval of a controversial pick for surgeon general.
The freshman insists that Reid would have jammed the nominations through in any event. He’s probably right, but that assertion misses the larger point. In the US Senate, making noise is easy, getting things done is hard. It’s not enough to want to do something or even to say you want to do it. You have to find a way to do it. The vote Cruz demanded was futile, and everyone knew it. Yet Cruz still insisted on calling it up at the 11th hour without even giving his own colleagues fair warning.
In interviews, Cruz spoke as if he was forcing a meaningful and decisive vote on the “illegal executive amnesty.” It was neither. Does anyone seriously believe that the 20 Republicans who opposed Cruz’s motion support Obama’s end-run around Congress? Even Pat Toomey, one of the chamber’s strongest conservatives, turned Cruz down, explaining he just couldn’t find anything unconstitutional about the spending bill (spending being a power which the Constitution grants explicitly to Congress).
If Cruz’s real goal was to draw attention to himself, mission accomplished. Like Elizabeth Warren, he’s learned quickly that in the Senate there is rarely a downside to being a big, loud “No.” It grabs headlines, panders to a political base, and carries zero political risk. What more could a self-absorbed senator want? To actually accomplish something, perhaps, which neither has yet done in their short congressional careers.
Which brings us to 2015, the opportunity for Republicans, and the challenge for Cruz. Next year, the Republican-led Congress will pass big pieces of legislation. They will produce a budget and send spending bills to the President. They will act on the Keystone pipeline and other energy concerns and even take up trade and immigration policy. Still, the practical requirements of 218 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate requires that no significant bill can perfectly reflect the view of any one individual.
Like every other member of Congress, Ted Cruz needs to decide if he wants to participate in the process of shaping legislation — which means, on occasion, supporting less than perfect outcomes — or not. Make no mistake, effectiveness is not a matter of making friends, it’s a matter of earning professional respect. And right now, there is little to be found for the junior senator from Texas.
To date, his disdain for working with his colleagues has come through loud and clear. Cruz called the spending bill approved last week “a perfect example of Washington corruption.” Having voted against plenty of spending bills in my time, I’m sure it was filled with billions in unnecessary spending. Calling out a bad bill is one thing, but maligning the motives of everyone who disagrees with you burns the very bridges needed to get anything done in the future.
There’s also nothing new in the idea of being a Senate maverick. John McCain has employed that approach more effectively than anyone. To his credit, however, McCain never loses sight of the most fundamental aspects of crafting legislation: At the end of the day, you need to be able to strike a deal, and you need to have someone willing to work with you at the table.
It appears that the Texan’s inspiration comes not from McCain but his 2008 running mate. Cruz has become the Sarah Palin of the Senate, going rogue and insisting that he’s the only one speaking truth to power. That may work in a governor’s office — or on a talk show — but not on the Senate floor. Then again, it may not matter. President Obama proved that you don’t have to be an effective senator to succeed in Washington. He may be Ted’s real role model after all.
John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.