The coming Rand Paul-Ted Cruz brawl

The Senate may only be big enough for one Tea Party leader

Topics: Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Tea Party, U.S. Senate, Conservatives, GOP, Editor's Picks,

The coming Rand Paul-Ted Cruz brawlSen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. (Credit: AP/Jonathan Ernst/David J. Phillip)

Ted Cruz is off to a fast start. After just six weeks in the Senate, he’s already managed to earn a rare bipartisan condemnation for stealing the show at Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings in a performance that got him compared to Joseph McCarthy and profiled by half the major media organizations the country.

All in a day’s work for the Tea Party movement’s new darling, who’s stepped into a newly created void. Jim DeMint, Allen West and Joe Walsh are out. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have lost their luster. And Marco Rubio is getting a taste for compromising on immigration. Cruz is only too happy to step up and take their place.

The National Review notes that “Cruz is rapidly becoming one of the most public faces of the [Tea Party] movement,” a status he had earned even before getting elected. Last summer, he was feted in a massive arena-filling, Glenn Beck-headlined, FreedomWorks-sponsored rally for his election in Dallas. “There is a great awakening that is sweeping this state, that is sweeping this country,” Cruz told the assembled masses. “New leaders who will stand and fight for liberty.”

New leaders like Cruz, perhaps. The Harvard-educated Hispanic lawyer has already earned plenty of calls to follow the Obama playbook and run for the presidency in 2016. And, also like Obama, questions have been raised about his eligibility for the White House (Cruz was born in Canada to American parents).

Even as the Tea Party movement, per se, may be waning, the activists remain and they will need a voice in Washington. The rapid ascent of the well-spoken Cruz has pleased many conservative activists hungry for more. “We salute you, Senator Cruz, and we’re calling for backup,” a much-shared RedState post read.

But it may not put any smiles on the face of Sen. Rand Paul, who is himself trying to become the de-facto leader of the very same movement and who helped get Cruz where he is today.

Endorsements from the Kentucky senator and his congressman father, Ron Paul, were critical in a primary race where the GOP establishment lined up against Cruz and behind Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, an arch-conservative whom the Tea Party nonetheless made out to be a moderate. But Cruz didn’t return the favor by endorsing the elder Paul’s presidential bid.

Rand Paul has been called Cruz’s “role model,” but the Texan is in many ways more accomplished and worldly than the Kentuckian. While Paul, an ophthalmologist with atypical credentials, had never held public office before his successful 2010 bid, Cruz was on track for this job since adolescence. At Princeton, he was a champion debater. After Harvard Law, he clerked for William Rehnquist, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, where he would return years later to argue cases as Texas’ solicitor general.

And while other Paul-endorsed candidates like Utah Sen. Mike Lee have kept a fairly low profile after getting to Washington, Cruz has been eager to upset the apple cart, threatening to upstage or even supplant the man who helped bring him there. He’s been called the Ivy League Marco Rubio and the Republican Barack Obama, but perhaps a better epitaph would be the Purer Rand Paul.

Paul has been openly considering a run for the presidency in four years, following in the footsteps of his father, and has set a reasonably cautious course to get there. “I would absolutely not run unless it were to win,” he told Fox News host Chris Wallace Sunday. “You know, points have been made and we’ll continue to make points, but I think the country really is ready for the narrative coming, libertarian Republican narrative.”

While a win for Paul seems impossible, he could still put up a solid showing to solidify himself as a national movement leader, just as his father did.

The establishment-backed candidate — perhaps Rubio or Christie or any other number of “serious” hopefuls — is most likely to finish on top, but there’s plenty of room for others to make waves, even in defeat. Someone like Rick Santorum, who is also reportedly considering a bid, would galvanize the social conservative base. That leaves an opening for a fiscally conservative libertarian-leaning figure who can appeal to the Tea party.

Paul is hoping it will be him, but it could just as easily be Cruz, assuming he wants it.

And if you judge someone by the enemies he’s made, Cruz is a shoo-in. “He’s a great rallying point for us. Any time we put his name on anything, it just goes viral in like four minutes,” said Matt Glazer, the executive director of Progress Texas, a liberal group in the state that has followed Cruz for years.

“I think he definitely has ambitions, it’s just a question of where they lead,” Glazer added. “If his goal is to get 30 percent of the entire electorate and win them over and evangelize them under the Cruz platform, he’s doing it exactly right. There’s nothing that party insiders or the White House can say that Ted Cruz is not opposed to.”

Even Paul, with a reputation for belligerence, took a much softer approach than Cruz when he entered the Senate in 2011. He put forward ambitious policy proposals, but largely respected the institution and avoided controversy.

In May of the previous year, he had become the center of a media firestorm over his apparent opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he immediately backtracked and worked hard to smooth it over, following the standard crisis clean-up playbook. The experience may have tempered him going forward and made him more cautious when he actually got to the Senate.

Since then, Paul has done what any ambitious senator might. He wrote a book about his campaign called “The Tea Party Goes to Washington” (Rand Paul is apparently the Tea Party). He’s been outspoken, but not obnoxiously so, and generally in service of clear policy goals. And he’s made amends with former rivals like Mitch McConnell, and worked with unusual partners where he can. Even his most outlandish proposals are mostly small ball, like ending foreign aid to Egypt.

Rand could probably outperform his father in a presidential bid, as he’s been more willing to sand off the rough edges of his libertarian beliefs to appeal to a wider range of conservatives, but that also makes him somewhat less pure.

Cruz, on the other hand, seems to relish tearing up the conventional playbook and throwing the decorum of the Senate out the window. “What’s the opposite of a charm offensive?” the Austin American Statesman editorial board asked yesterday. “Texas’ newest U.S. senator, Republican Ted Cruz, appears fully committed to finding out.”

For a movement that despises Washington and its chummy rules, Cruz is a breath of fresh air.

He led the charge against Hagel in a way that many of his own colleagues found uncouth; he was one of only three senators to vote against John Kerry’s ascension to secretary of state; he spearheaded the opposition to the Violence Against Women Act (his explanation for the vote was pathetically thin); and he’s already said he’s not interested in even negotiating about comprehensive immigration reform and “amnesty.”

The last point is perhaps what separates him most from Rubio, the GOP point man on immigration, and Paul, who wants something to the left of many Democrats in the space. Cruz supports erecting a fence across the entire U.S.-Mexico border, opposes the DREAM Act, and rejects any kind of guest-worker program.

In that way, Cruz has staked his wagon not to the immigration reform train, but the cliff he hopes to drive it off in coming months. On other issues, from taxes to spending to gun control to healthcare, Paul and Cruz largely agree. That gap reflects a wider schism among the type of conservative activists inclined to support either senator, with the libertarian free-market faction on one side, and the Nativist conservatives on the other. Despite all they have in common, this issue divides them, as it does Paul and Cruz.

It’s too soon to see any overt tension between Paul and Cruz, as the latter just got there a few minutes ago, but stay tuned as the Senate takes up immigration reform.

If the chamber or 2016 has only enough room for one major Tea Party conservative leader, the fight for that crown may be decided by the fate, ironically, of President Obama’s signature second-term agenda item.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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