At the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa last Saturday, Senator Ted Cruz was all smiles when asked how he would respond to Donald Trump's attack on John McCain.
Cruz said that he would not "go into the gutter with personal attacks impugning character." The only non-political justification we can see for refusing to denounce Trump over those remarks is a philosophical one: that perhaps it's impossible to impugn the character of Donald Trump, since he has no character. But Cruz went ahead and laid down a marker: that he has never launched a personal attack against anyone in the Senate, and he won't do so during his presidential campaign. "I'm not going to just take a stick to fellow Republicans or for that matter to Democrats," Cruz explained. "In my time in the Senate I haven't impugned the character of Republicans or Democrats and I don't intend to start today."
Turns out that he intended to start impugning character six days later, on the floor of the Senate, with a ferocious address aimed at Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
McConnell on Friday set up a series of votes to move some lingering items on the congressional agenda. He's putting forth a long-term highway bill and will allow two, and only two, amendments to it: one to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act and another to reauthorize the lapsed (and loathed by conservatives) Export-Import Bank. The former is a sop to conservatives in exchange for consideration of the latter. The Obamacare repeal amendment will get filibustered like nobody's business while the Ex-Im reauthorization will likely pass, since it draws strong Democratic support and just enough Republican support.
Cruz claims that McConnell had given him and fellow conservatives his word that he would not bring the Ex-Im bank to the floor anytime soon after it was reported, during the fight over trade promotion authority, that McConnell had promised Democratic senators Maria Cantwell a vote on Ex-Im to secure their TPA votes.
Which led Cruz to repeatedly call Mitch McConnell a liar this morning on the Senate floor.
"The majority leader looked me in the eye, and looked 54 Republicans in the eye. I cannot believe he would tell a flat-out lie. And I voted based on those assurances that he made to each and every single one of us,” the GOP presidential candidate said. “What we just saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over and over and over again was a simple lie.”
Cruz was charging Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with misleading senators and others about there not being a deal to provide for reviving the Export-Import Bank.
“If you or I cannot trust what the majority leader tells us, that will have consequences on other legislation as well on how this institution operates,” Cruz said.
Calling someone a liar would almost certainly count as impugning someone's character. And by the stuffy old gentleman's decorum that governs the Senate, calling a colleague a liar on the Senate floor is a grosser violation of order than straight-up murdering him. If Cruz's recollection of events is accurate, then it would be perfectly fair to call McConnell a liar. Just like it would have been perfectly fair for him to have called Donald Trump an asshole for insulting John McCain in the manner that he did or any of the other millions of people he's insulted in the past month.
The difference is that Ted Cruz finds it politically advantageous to impugn the character of Mitch McConnell but politically disadvantageous to impugn the character of Donald J. Trump. Part of Cruz's strategy over the past couple of weeks has been, in the words of Sen. Claire McCaskill, "following Trump around like a lost puppy, hoping to get his leftovers when he finally flames out." Now that we know Cruz is indeed capable of impugning a fellow politician's character, it will be interesting to see where he draws the line for Trump. The risk with Cruz's "me-too" strategy, as GOP strategist Liz Mair tweeted last night, is that if "people go sour on Trump, aren't they going to go sour on the 'me-tooer'?" At some point Trump will turn toxic, even among the hard-right elements Cruz is courting, and Cruz will have to stop kissing his ass. When that moment comes, or what it will be like, I can't say. But I do know that it will be funny, like most things.