Sen. Ted Cruz: 'Count Me as a Proud Wacko Bird'
For attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, represents everything they love. Tea Party insurgent? Check. Tenth amendment fanatic? Check. Anti-choice? Check. Anti-education? Check. Sarah Palin endorsement? Check. Wacko bird? Check.
Indeed, Cruz wore that last appelation, bestowed on him by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the former Republican presidential candidate, as a badge of honor. It was McCain's description of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and those who, like Cruz, joined Paul on the Senate floor earlier this month, for a filibuster of President Barack Obama's nomination of John Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. In that filibuster, the subject of the Brennan nomination was overshadowed by Paul's attack on the Obama administration for its policy on drones, the unmanned airborne vehicles used by the administration for targeted assassinations of al Qaeda leaders and for warfare against Taliban leaders in Pakistan (attacks that often kill civilians).
Seeking to Share Rand Paul's Spotlight
The enduring popularity of the Paul family at CPAC was confirmed just before Cruz's big closing speech at the right-wing confab, when it was revealed that Rand Paul, like his father before him, won the CPAC presidential straw poll. Cruz was clearly angling for some reflected glow from the Paul spotlight, spending a good chunk of his opening to aggrandizing his own role in Paul's filibuster.
"To my grave, I will owe Rand Paul a debt of gratitude...," Cruz said, noting that his involvement in the filibuster marked his first speech on the Senate floor after being sworn in just 10 weeks ago. He ran as a Tea Party challenger to the candidate anointed by the Texas Republican Party, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and was helped in that effort by Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate (selected by none other than McCain himself).
"We did have a certain eminence grise of the Republican Party describe Rand Paul and me as ‘wacko birds,’" Cruz told the CPAC crowd. "I have to admit, when Rand and I first heard that, we thought that maybe it was a new kind of drone. But if standing for liberty and standing for the Constitution makes you a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird."
Cruz went on at some length about the filibuster, excitedly telling the audience of his selected readings for his star turn in Paul's big show.
Noting that the filibuster took place on the 177th anniverary of the fall of the Alamo, Cruz read the famous "no surrender" letter penned by William Barret Travis during the battle.
"I observed to Rand...that if the heros of the Alamo -- William Barret Travis and Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie -- were alive today, they would have been standing shoulder to shoulder with him on the floor of the Senate," Cruz said.
Cruz, who never served in the military, seemed keen to glorify himself by equating Rand Paul and himself with warriors with his reading selections for the filibuster, which included a famous passage from William Shakespeare's play, Henry V.
"I got to read from Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech," Cruz said, "and there were more than a few senators that were not there with us that night who have held their manhoods acheapened as a result." Yes, he said "acheapened" in an apparent reference to this sentence from the passage, which is full of the language of bloody sacrifices those who fight will suffer:
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
It was all very manly, in that Braveheart sort of way. For his final filibuster literary selection, Cruz noted that he read a cleaned-up version of the opening monologue from the movie Patton, the George C. Scott vehicle that celebrated the World War II general. Here's a taste of that script:
Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle.
We’re not just going to shoot the bastards, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun bastards by the bushel.
Throughout his speech, Cruz manically paced the stage, employing his trademark motivational speaker/televangelist style of shunning the podium, which had been removed from the stage for his performance.
If there was any coherence to his speech, it was that its form was echoed by his relentless movement from one side of the stage to the other. Leaping from topic to topic, Cruz failed to draw them together, making him a weak inheritor of a speaking slot previously occupied by Glenn Beck and Allen West. However wacky those two may be, they're compelling speakers.
Cruz's speech, by contrast, consisted of references to, but no quotations from, literature the audience was likely not familar with (the Shakespeare passage and the Alamo letter), and comprised several laundry lists, including one of the constitutional amendments he claimed the administration was transgressing, and another of things he said conservatives must put a stop to. Two of those had already been laid out by Rand Paul in his well-received CPAC speech, starting with Cruz's call to abolish the Department of Education (always a good applause line at CPAC. The other was a refrain heard from podiums and panels throughout the conference, that the administration's aid to Egypt amounted to a $250 million, no-strings-attached gift to enemies of the U.S. and Israel.
"[W]e need to stop sending foreign aid to nations that hate us," Cruz declared.
Opening with a lame sequester joke, Cruz drew only a few polite chuckles when he tried to illustrate what he suggested was the modest size of the sequester's across-the-board spending cuts by comparing the federal budget to a meal subjected to a 2 percent reduction of its previous size. (He sarcastically expressed his grief at the sight of "Newt Gingrich's emaciated face.")
In his list of stock right-wing applause lines, Cruz paid homage to CPACers' love for 100-year-old technology in a non-sequitur about the federal debt: "How did we get a $16-and-a-half trillion debt? We have a federal government that thinks they have the right to regulate our toilet seats and our lightbulbs."
Despite his list of alleged threats to the republic, Cruz assured his audience that "conservatives are winning," using the sequester as evidence.
"[T]he White House was certain," Cruz said, "that Republicans were going to fold under and cave, and instead we stood our ground and got the first, at least, small step -- and I underscore, it is a small step -- to reining in our spending and debt."
Another big win, as Cruz sees it: that he got all of the Republicans in the Senate to sign onto his amendment for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Lost on the novice senator was the time-honored tradition of the minority party speaking to its base by signing onto to ideologically-driven legislation that doesn't have a chance of winning.
The Right's Diversity Conundrum
Among the reasons Cruz is so loved on the right, aside from is rhetoric, is the fact of his Latino heritage. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who also addressed CPAC, crushingly lost the Latino vote, and demographers find it difficult to find a path to presidential victory for the GOP unless it makes inroads into Latino communities. In the Republican Party of today, a Spanish last name is golden.
Cruz was at his best at CPAC when telling the story of his father who, he said, emigrated to the U.S. in 1957 after having been imprisoned and tortured in Castro's Cuba.
As Cruz told it, his father settled in Texas as an 18-year-old who "didn't speak a word of English," and washed dishes for 50 cents an hour. Although he never mentioned his father's name, Cruz did ask his dad, who was in the audience, to stand and be recognized. It was a genuinely moving moment.
But on the eve of St. Patrick's Day, Cruz also recognized "my Irish mother," using her ethnicity to leap into a claim of religious intolerance against the Obama administration, saying it had forced the closure of Catholic charities by making demands that the church's charitable institutions betray their religious values, presumably a reference to the federal government's non-discrimination requirements for government contracts for the provision of services by charitable institutions. (A particularly contentious issue is adoptions by same-sex couples.) In truth -- not a quality Cruz is known for -- those institutions are free to discriminate under the First Amendment: they just can't have public money if they insist on doing so.
For his big night at CPAC -- the largest annual gathering of right-wingers -- Cruz's performance was adequate, heralding his arrival as a star, however minor. If he really wants to hit the big-time, though, he'll need a bit more discipline.