Ted Cruz's "back-bencher" problem: Why the right-wing hero is in serious denial

Like Obama did, Cruz has very little experience in the Senate. Here's why that's a problem for the nut's campaign

By Jim Newell

Published March 25, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)
(Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

Experience, in and of itself, is one of those overrated things people talk about in presidential campaigns. It's a factor, sure, but it doesn't correlate well with someone's knowledge or ability to perform. You can be a professional dumpster diver for your whole life, but if you know what you're talking about, and can convince a country of 300 million people that you know what you're talking about over the course of a two-year campaign, then fine.

When Barack Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, he had served as a United States senator for two years. But he was able to convince a solid majority of the American people that he had enough knowledge of domestic and foreign policy to be president. His opponent, John McCain, had been serving in the Senate for approximately 650 years, but his platform of constant warfare with everyone on the foreign policy side and reading Alan Greenspan's book on the domestic side suggested that he hadn't learned all that much, and he failed to persuade voters that he was more qualified to run the country.

The conservatives who claim that all of the world's problems today, domestic and abroad, are the direct result of President Obama's inexperience upon taking office find themselves in an uncomfortable position with Ted Cruz. They may not all vote for Cruz, but they do generally agree that he is right in all the areas that Obama is wrong. Perhaps Cruz just learned more quickly in his two years on the job than Obama did? After all, Cruz is very smart. He has two Ivy League degrees including a J.D. from Harvard Law School. A lot like... Barack Obama.

If master litigator Ted Cruz was running against Ted Cruz, Ted Cruz would argue that Ted Cruz is not experienced enough to be president. But Ted Cruz is only inadvertently running against himself. What's his defense against those who would dare compare his level of inexperience to that of the inept Barack Obama? Cruz tried out a line on political independent Glenn Beck's radio show yesterday.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is balking at comparisons to President Obama, who both launched presidential bids during their first term in the Senate, criticizing the president as a "backbencher" during his time in Congress.

"He was a backbencher. He did not engage in a whole lot of issues of consequence," Cruz said Tuesday morning on "The Glenn Beck Radio Program."

"In the time I've been there, on issue after issue after issue, I've been leading the fight on conservative principles, leading the fight to stop ObamaCare, to stop amnesty, to stop the debt that is crushing our kids and grandkids to defend our constitutional rights."

He's right that Sen. Obama was a backbencher. But Sen. Cruz is also a backbencher. "Backbencher," in the metaphorical sense that we use it in our political system, means that you are low in seniority and do not have an official leadership role. Ted Cruz is low in seniority. He does not chair a committee, though he was thrown a bone in the form of a subcommittee chairmanship at the beginning of the new Congress -- just like Barack Obama was in 2007. Obama did not have much of a Senate record to speak of when he ran for president, and Ted Cruz won't either. Whatever.

Cruz's personal definition of "backbencher," though, means that you haven't made a name for yourself in the chamber. By that definition, Cruz definitely is different from Obama. Cruz made quite a name for himself from the minute he stepped into the Senate. And I don't mean this in a good way. He describes his record as "leading the fight to stop ObamaCare, to stop amnesty, to stop the debt that is crushing our kids and grandkids to defend our constitutional rights." And his "leadership" in these fights has won him precisely nothing in material concessions, because he is not an official leader. He's the guy who gets in the way of the official leaders when they are trying to maintain a barely functioning government. The term he's looking for is "grandstander."

It's not hard to enter the Senate and just act like an asshole in order to win attention for yourself. Any senator, no matter his or her seniority, can make the choice to be a total jerk intent on sabotaging everything for personal publicity. But choosing to annoy your colleagues 24/7 does not make you a "leader," especially when it fails to produce results each and every time because you have no strategy. It makes you a self-promoter mortgaging your Senate career for a niche presidential campaign.

Cruz would be much more credible downplaying the importance of experience, where he'd have a point, instead of trying to argue that he's already built some sort of impressive Senate record.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell