Ted Cruz: The Next Great Tea Party Hope

Ted Cruz’s stunning win in the Texas GOP Senate primary buoyed hope among critics of the establishment. Matt Latimer on why Cruz may deliver where his predecessors have failed.

Pat Sullivan / AP Photo

The world’s attention properly turned to Robert Pattinson’s love life and Olympic medalists, most of whom we’ll forget about in a month’s time unless they are American and uncommonly attractive, some readers may have missed an equally stunning development this week: the shocking, breathtaking, insert-synonym-here primary victory in Texas Tuesday night of the latest Tea Party darling, Ted Cruz, in his battle for the U.S. Senate. Since it sprang from the mist a few years ago, the Tea Party has had its heart broken more times than Tom Cruise’s publicists. But the other Mr. Cruz, a Cuban-American who has never held office before, says he will be different than those Tea Party darlings who came before him. He may be right.

Mr. Cruz is hardly the first political neophyte to take on his party’s favored candidate and win a lopsided victory. In some ways, his feat, while impressive, was not all that hard. Running against candidates who manage to get themselves labeled the “face” of the Republican establishment is like running against Mrs. Kraus at a Benson convention. The hard part is not the victory; the hard part comes is what comes next once you’re elected.

It seems ludicrous now, but once upon a time Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown was considered to be a Tea Party favorite. Indeed, the Tea Party was widely credited with Brown’s surprising victory against the handpicked Democratic successor to the revered Ted Kennedy. Maybe he was never a Tea Partier to begin with, or maybe the moderate Republican decided he’d rather win reelection than be praised by Glenn and Rush and Sarah. In any event, the break-up was tough.

Enter Florida’s Marco Rubio, the man who upset the state’s GOP establishment in 2010 and promised to shake up Washington, too. It may be too early to judge, but to many Tea Partiers Mr. Rubio went to the nation’s capital and… fit in all too well. Most members of the Tea Party don’t elect candidates so they can make the short list for vice president.

It is understandable that the grand old poobahs of the Grand Old Party aren’t too worried about Ted Cruz. They’ve figured out how to tame those who came before him. The demands of reelection, the need for party support, the dispensing of prime committee and speaking assignments, the general culture of political Washington, have proven sufficient to keep Tea Party troublemakers from, well, making trouble. Those who do try to run against the leadership find themselves in a corner, next to Sen. Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint—and given the epitaph “uncompromising” by the media.

The same holds true for the Democrats, too. The biggest hurdle President Obama has faced since his election is not the economy, national security, or his own political inexperience. Obama’s biggest problem is that he runs for reelection as part of the same system he once pledged to upturn. With all due respect to the bestselling book, the game hasn’t changed in Washington. Each party hires the same people to issue the same sorts of talking points echoed across the same news outlets. None of them really understand what they are saying. Mr. Romney—the candidate of the “Etch-a-Sketch”—is the culmination of a mentality that made the Tea Party possible. The candidate who takes the phrase “message of the day” to its literal meaning.

Will Mr. Cruz be any different? Perhaps. The telling early moment in his Tuesday night victory speech, in which he lauded conservative economist Milton Friedman, was that Cruz thought to mention Mr. Friedman at all. Republicans seeking Tea Party votes have figured out to praise Ronald Reagan and blabber on about “restoring” the Constitution—with only elementary knowledge of Reaganite philosophy and at best a general conception of what the Federalist Papers were about. Not as many Tea Party courters are interested enough in the underpinnings of conservatism to talk about people like Friedman, a man who once said, “I am in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it’s possible.” What Republican today would actually say this, and mean it? Ted Cruz might.

There were other moments, too. The candidate thanked God in his speech without seeming to be worried that the phrase will mark him as part of the political fringe. In one of the debates against his Senate primary opponent, Cruz said something Mitt Romney would never say. Could never say. “I don’t think it’s government’s job to find health care for people,” Cruz said. “I think it’s the individual’s job to find health care.” “I am perfectly happy to compromise whether it’s with Democrats or anybody else,” Cruz said at another point. “As long as we’re reducing the size of government.” This, too, is something Republicans (and even some Democrats) talk about, but never actually do.

Senator Cruz’s victory is widely cited as another sign of the Tea Party’s potency. If he is elected in November and his rhetoric matches the reality, then the nation’s capital could be in for a well-deserved hard time. But if Cruz goes to Washington and also disappoints those who elected him, he will be a sign of the movement’s absolute irrelevance. In a year’s time, we may conclude that the love life of a movie vampire merits more of our attention after all.