NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday filled with so many red-meat applause lines that it will likely overshadow some important policy pronouncements he made at the end.
On two major planks of the culture wars, the senator came down on the side of states' rights, suggesting a softening of traditional GOP federalist opposition in each case.
Speaking on the opening day of the annual conservative gathering, Cruz said he felt that decisions about marriage policy are best made at the state level.
“It is wrong for the federal government or unelected judges to tear down the marriage laws of the states,” he told the audience.
That stance is a clear rebuke of a series of lower court decisions that have ruled state marriage bans as unconstitutional. It also seems bound to clash against the Supreme Court, which will weigh in on the matter this June and is expected to declare marriage a constitutional right. But in other respects, Cruz's remark reflects a newish frontier for a Republican presidential hopeful and a fair bit of movement for Cruz himself.
As recently as last month, Cruz was saying he would introduce a federal constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Such a position, which was held by Mitt Romney in 2012, would establish a one-size-fits-all policy throughout the country. But on Thursday, Cruz was declaring -- at least before the CPAC crowd -- that marriage is “a question for the states.”
Nor was that the only thing Cruz said should be left to state lawmakers. The senator also expressed his grudging willingness to follow the same principle when it comes to legalizing pot.
“Look,” he said, after making a few pot-makes-you-dumb jokes to moderator Sean Hannity, “I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the laboratories of democracy. If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that’s their prerogative. I don’t agree with it, but that’s their right.”
The crowd of conservative activists applauded, which they are prone to do when Cruz speaks.
Elsewhere, he didn’t have to take any risks to get them going. At one point, Cruz made a crude joke about Bill Clinton, uttering “youth outreach” when asked by Hannity to play a word-association game about the former president. As for the other Clinton, Cruz had some pre-packaged lines. "We could have had Hillary here, but we couldn't find a foreign nation to foot the bill,” he said, alluding to a Washington Post story from the day before about donations made to the Clinton Foundation during Hillary Clinton's time as secretary of state.
For the most part, Cruz used his time to encourage the crowd to gravitate toward a 2016 presidential candidate willing to stand apart from dealmaking establishment Republicans. Cruz, who knows a thing or two about needling his own party, went through a litany of issues that he said could serve as litmus tests for presidential aspirants.
“If a candidate tells you they oppose Obamacare, fantastic. But when have you stood up and fought against it?” he said. "If a candidate says they oppose President Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional executive amnesty, terrific. When have you stood up and fought against it?”
As he spoke, 20 miles away, congressional Republicans were deliberating a path forward for funding the Department of Homeland Security, where the money runs out on Friday. The night before, Senate Republicans had allowed for a bill to fund DHS to be separated from legislation to undo the president’s executive actions on immigration. Only two Republicans had voted against a measure to essentially start the legislative process by which those dual bills would be considered. Cruz was not one of them. Despite his acquiescence, he was not deterred.
“Look, unfortunately Republican leadership is cutting a deal with Harry Reid and the Democrats to give in on executive amnesty. And the question why is because they are not listening to you,” he said. “There is a mendacity about Washington.”
Watch the video of Cruz's remarks above.
Want more updates from Sam? Sign up for his newsletter, Spam Stein.