Dear John McCain: Ted Cruz isn’t what’s wrong with the Senate, you are

Longtime example of everything awful about the U.S. Senate says a colleague is ruining everything by being rude

Topics: Politics, U.S. Senate, John McCain, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Editor's Picks,

Dear John McCain: Ted Cruz isn't what's wrong with the Senate, you areSen. John McCain (Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar)

The Senate runs, as the wise old men who make up the majority of that institution would tell you, on comity. Recently, Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been in the Senate for about 10 minutes, has been accused of disrespecting the Senate’s tradition of comity. He has been accused of “engaging in innuendo” by repeatedly insinuating that Chuck Hagel is somehow in the pocket of evil foreign powers, and he is also said to have engaged in the even worse crime of talking too much even though he’s just a freshman.

Here’s Politico with the shocking details:

Behind closed doors, some Republican senators report that Cruz, in his stone-cold serious prosecutorial style, speaks at length when it’s far more common for freshmen to wait before asserting themselves — particularly ones who were just sworn in.

Absolutely appalling, how he insists on acting as self-impressed as his more senior colleagues. Politico also reports that Cruz was rude to Chuck Schumer on a Sunday show, which just isn’t done. After Cruz’s hostile questioning of Hagel, McCain publicly rebuked the Texas senator, something McCain only does to practically everyone who annoys him in any fashion. “All I can say is that the appropriate way to treat Senator Hagel is to be as tough as you want to be, but don’t be disrespectful or malign his character,” Mr. McCain told the New York Times.

Yes, Ted Cruz has obviously not yet learned that the Senate runs on comity. Except the problem is the Senate isn’t running at all, and hasn’t been for some time now. It was not running before Cruz got there. His arrival changed nothing.

Ted Cruz has indeed been acting horribly, lobbing McCarthyite smears and generally playing it up for the rubes back home. Last week, stories and columns ran, effectively simultaneously, in Politico, the Times and the Washington Post, all with the same basic message: Ted Cruz is being a dick. It was almost as if someone was trying to send him a message!

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But Ted Cruz being a dick isn’t what has prevented the Senate from accomplishing anything. Ted Cruz’s rudeness isn’t what’s led the Senate to stop performing even its most basic tasks, like confirming uncontroversial agency heads and judges. Ted Cruz’s loudmouthed Senator Asshole routine is not what’s wrong with the Senate. What’s wrong with the Senate is grandstanding buffoons like John McCain who think comity is actually more important than accomplishing anything.

Lindsey Graham told Politico what he says to all new senators: “You’re going to be respected if you can throw a punch but you also have to prove you can do a deal.” Here’s what Lindsey Graham doesn’t ever do: a deal. Graham is a peerless negotiator, but he also always backs out of every deal at the last second because he cares more about the act of negotiation than he does about accomplishing goals through legislation. Ted Cruz didn’t blow up immigration reform on multiple occasions. Ted Cruz isn’t why senators like McCain and Graham decide to stop supporting things they used to support, like cap-and-trade, because of political cowardice or petty grievances over vote scheduling or something.

Because senators refuse to see themselves as unimpressive party hacks, they relish the power that comes with being seen as someone who makes “deals.” And the best way to exercise that power is to negotiate until legislation is objectively worse at accomplishing its supposed objective and then declaring with anguish that you cannot bring yourself to support the result of your negotiation. That is considered very impressive senator-ing. What Lindsey Graham wants is for Cruz to vote exactly the way he’s voting now (when the Senate bothers to vote), but for him to also spend a lot more time pretending he might vote a different way.

The Senate doesn’t work because Mitch McConnell uses every rule at his disposal to block the Senate from working, and he’s allowed to do this because Democrats respect the tradition of Senate collegiality so much that they refuse to end the rules that empower the minority to politely block all Senate business for no reason.

Not long ago, the Wilson Center’s Donald Wolfensberger praised the “gentlemen’s agreement” Harry Reid got instead of filibuster reform as a sign of a new comity golden age.

This year’s failed reform efforts produced headlines such as, “Filibuster Reform Goes Bust” and “Filibuster Lives.” The reality, however, is that the reformers’ bold ploy did force the hand of the bipartisan leadership to work out agreements that will enable the Senate to operate in a more functional and conciliatory manner. That bodes well for getting some important things done this year, even on the eve of what will be a contentious election season.

And then of course Republicans responded by filibustering the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense, a move that was both unprecedented (while a Cabinet nominee has failed an up-and-down vote, none of have been actually filibustered) and pointless (because he’ll eventually still be confirmed, in a few more days). They did it because they could, more or less, and while Ted Cruz was one of the loudest voices for the filibuster, it only actually happened because of kings of comity John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They were outraged over Cruz’s out-of-bounds questioning of a Cabinet appointee they then filibustered.

Meanwhile Republicans are still all trying to nullify the Consumer Financial Protection Board, but for the most part they are doing so politely so it is not considered a shocking breach of etiquette or whatever.

Ted Cruz is what’s wrong with the modern Republican Party — he’s an extremist who says outrageous things specifically to be seen as disrespecting “Washington elites” — but what’s wrong with the Senate is just about every other senator, most of whom think their first duty is to be incredibly respectful of one another while never evincing any concern whatsoever for the real-life consequences of their inaction on nearly every single one of America’s most urgent problems, from unemployment to catastrophic climate change. And their tradition of deference to one another, and their high esteem for the broken institution they are members of, is what stops them from doing anything to change the way they don’t do business.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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