Ted Cruz loves rekindling the story of Ronald Reagan as a political roadmap for Republican revitalization.
Except, that is, for the Gipper’s oft-cited 11th commandment.
Just ask Terry Branstad. Iowa’s longest-serving governor issued a pointed reminder to attendees of the party’s annual Ronald Reagan dinner Friday night to get back to heeding the 40th president’s much revered commandment designed to foster unity and comity: Speak no ill of other Republicans.
Minutes later, Ted Cruz -- the gala’s guest of honor who is capping his ninth month as a senator -- shamelessly did just that. And with vigor.
The Texas freshman claimed that the only reason he ultimately fell short in his quixotic quest to defund Obamacare, which spurred a 16-day government shutdown, was because his fellow Republicans couldn’t stomach the fight.
“Unfortunately a significant number of Senate Republicans chose not to unite and stand side by side with House Republicans,” Cruz told the gathering of 600 party regulars in a downtown convention hall. “Had we stood together, I’m convinced the outcome of this fight would be very, very different.”
Then, he went even further, slinging a not-so-veiled club at a bevy of nameless but well-known Republican strategists who have publicly urged the party to take a more centrist, less ideologically driven posture to win elections.
“It’s driven by an old Nixonian adage that in the primary you run to the right and in the general you run to the left. What complete poppycock,” Cruz hissed. “If you took every strategist and dumped them in the ocean, you know what you’d call it? A good start.”
The crowd ate it up faster than their rubber-chicken dinner.
It’s little surprise that Cruz waltzed back into Iowa -- his third visit to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state in as many months -- and served up a brash, anti-establishment message even at the risk of clashing mightily with the mindset of the home-state governor sitting in the front row.
As Urbandale, Iowa Republican Isabel Perez-Conde put it, “He’s a ballsy dude.”
Yet more revealing were the reinforcements Cruz received from party officials here, who one after another took to the podium to laud his unwavering principle and flinty steel.
David Fischer, co-chair of the state GOP noted that some Republicans have called the pack of new rabble-rousing senators like Cruz names. “I have a name for these principled new leaders too,” he fired back. “I call them the future.”
Chairman A.J. Spiker slighted the “permanent political establishment” -- which likely accounted for the majority of people in the room -- and praised Cruz for bucking the leadership of his own party.
Even the invocation included a prayer for conservative leaders who “are willing to let the arrows come to the back of their head and basically be crucified for their belief system.”
If Cruz wasn’t emboldened about his chances to make inroads in the Iowa caucuses heading into the evening, he must be now.
“He’s going to be proven right after all. The old RINOS, yeah, they don’t like him. But we’re not an old RINO,” said Lee Guthrie, a Cruz supporter who tossed around the vernacular to describe a so-called ‘Republican In Name Only.’
What’s more convincing of Cruz’s likelihood to make a White House run is his naked, unabashed self-regard.
Despite polls showing the Republican brand in tatters, Cruz rattled off what he dubbed a list of policy wins this year: Redefining drone policy, quashing new gun control laws, smothering a bipartisan immigration bill and halting a unilateral strike on Syria.
Left unsaid was how most of these “complete victories” centered around stopping something from happening rather than achieving a personal legislative goal.
No matter to Cruz. He claims to be batting .800.
“In baseball terms . . . that’s double Ty Cobb,” he said to cheers.
With this particular audience, Cruz arguably hit a home run.
But the tension with longtime establishment fixtures here is palpable and could come become a stumbling block if he ultimately pursues a presidential bid.
During the elected-official speaking portion of the evening, one could’ve been forgiven if they forgot Cruz was the guest of honor.
Aside from an opening joke about yielding a portion of his time, Sen. Chuck Grassley didn’t mention Cruz in his speech, instead choosing to unload on President Obama. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds focused her time on progress with local economic issues. And after calling Cruz an “up-and-coming senator," Branstad spent the bulk of his address enthusiastically propping up the accomplishments of his fellow governors, some who could end up being Cruz’s 2016 rivals, like Rick Perry and Scott Walker.
“We Republican governors don’t spend our time calling press conferences to make political demands and issue ultimatums. We provide leadership,” Branstad said, in a barb that could certainly apply to Cruz.
While Branstad previously said he would refrain from applauding or criticizing Cruz, he’s certainly not taking that approach with another potential 2016er visiting the state next month for a fundraiser.
He’s called Rep. Paul Ryan “a leader in Washington advocating for balancing our budget” and holding a “conservative, common-sense approach to budgeting.”
Cruz, on the other hand, received only a pat on the head for showing up.
“The party is very divided over the shutdown and his involvement both helped him and hurt him,” explained Steve Grubbs, a former Iowa GOP chairman. “He is very popular among much of the party base. Establishment Republicans are concerned he is too divisive.”
After speaking for 45 minutes and posing for pictures, I asked Cruz if he had broken his hero’s commandment in his very own speech by fingering Republicans for the failure to vaporize Obamacare.
He reverted to the dogma that won him so many plaudits throughout the night: The willingness to fight when so many others seemingly won’t.
“I am a big believer that Republicans need to stand for principle,” he said. “I have been careful not to speak ill of any senator, Republican or Democrat. That’s very different from not being willing to speak the truth. And it’s my responsibility to 26 million Texans to speak the truth.”