It's difficult to evaluate Senator Ted Cruz's efforts to kill the 2010 Affordable Care Act, his three recent trips to Iowa, and his coming trip to South Carolina outside the context of his presumed ambition to run for president as early as 2016.
Cruz's activities in the Senate and on the campaign trail have given him considerable national exposure and strengthened his appeal with his Tea Party base where his approval rating is near 75 percent according to a recent Pew poll. His remarks in Iowa last Friday at a Republican dinner were, as we have come to expect, forceful, provocative and defiant. He has clearly emerged as a political star in the Republican Party, but it's unclear if he has staying power. I think that if the junior senator from Texas wants to avoid a flameout he should slow down and reassess his overall strategy and his recent tactics. And he might want to begin by thinking about the career of one of only three senators who made a direct jump from the U.S. Senate to the White House: John F. Kennedy.
The first Senator Kennedy never envisioned a lengthy career in the upper chamber, but he charted a course there that was more thoughtful, strategic and creative than Senator Cruz has during his short tenure. JFK was, to be sure, an ambitious politician who was determined to use the Senate as a launching pad to run for president. But he went about it much differently than Cruz. Kennedy talked less and listened more; he planned carefully, was respectful of colleagues, and comported himself with public dignity and restraint. He cloaked his considerable ambitions far more artfully and effectively than has Cruz.
To be sure, both American politics and the Senate have changed dramatically since JFK served from 1953 to 1960. However, there are some lessons from JFK's Senate tenure that Cruz would do well to consider. If Cruz had studied Kennedy's record as he entered the Senate in January of 2013, the Texan would have avoided several critical mistakes and would be better positioned to challenge for the presidency in 2016. Here are several lessons from Senator Kennedy that Senator Cruz should have absorbed.
First, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
Yes, this hackneyed cliche has contemporary political relevance. When Kennedy entered the Senate he was determined to show the people of Massachusetts and his colleagues that he was serious about his new job. Working with his staff, business and academic leaders, Kennedy assembled a detailed plan to revive his state's and region's economy which he presented during three speeches on the Senate floor. Each lasted for more than two hours and was packed with specific proposals that became the basis for dozens of bills, several major articles, and a 159 page book, The Economic Problems of New England: A Program for Congressional Action.
By contrast, Cruz's entrance into the Senate has been more dramatic, with high profile fights over the nomination of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, gun control legislation, drone policy, and the Affordable Care Act. He attracted attention by opposing aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the reauthorization of programs to combat domestic violence, and even a resolution to commemorate Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week. Cruz has developed a reputation as someone who is against a lot, but it's less clear what he supports. He is widely viewed as a show pony not a work horse. He seems to love TV cameras more than the hard work of finding solutions to problems.
Second, don't be predictable; be bold and surprise people by breaking from your base at least on occasion.
Shortly after Kennedy entered the Senate he confronted the politically charged issue of whether to support construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway which would link the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. Proposals for American participation to build the Seaway were supported by all U.S. presidents from Warren Harding to Dwight Eisenhower, but had stalled in Congress. Lawmakers from New England opposed the Seaway, fearing it would hurt their region economically.
Kennedy opposed the Seaway during his three terms in the House but when he entered the Senate, JFK reconsidered the issue and decided to back the project. Kennedy said he doubted the Seaway would directly help his state and might even hurt it in some respects but was in the long-term national interest. It was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Eisenhower in the spring of 1954. Kennedy's vote attracted considerable attention back home. Some argued that he sold out Massachusetts; others said he displayed statesmanship by rejecting purely parochial considerations. No doubt there was a political calculation to his vote. House Speaker Tip O'Neill said later that when JFK voted for the Seaway he suspected he was plotting a presidential run.
So far, Senator Cruz has not strayed from his political base on any major issue. His views have been predictable and often articulated in sanctimonious, preachy ways. He has ridiculed Republicans who discuss compromises with Democrats as "squishes" and members of the "surrender caucus." He lambasted those Senate Republicans who challenged his government shutdown strategy, arguing they were betraying courageous House Republicans. He even scared Republican senator Marco Rubio into fleeing from the comprehensive immigration reform bill that he helped write.
Third, use the Senate as a platform to be taken seriously.
For Kennedy, the Senate was a venue to give detailed and thoughtful speeches. He analyzed the issues of the day, placed them in historical context, and offered strikingly detailed programs to tackle them. The range of his historical references was impressive; he quoted Arnold Toynbee, Edmund Gibbon, Abraham Lincoln and Herodotus and cited lessons to be gleaned from the 16th century Battle of Calais, the Crusades, and the hardships of the Oregon Trail. He wore his erudition lightly, displaying wit and self-deprecation .
Cruz is reputed to a persuasive advocate. He was a champion debater in college and has argued high profile cases before the Supreme Court. He is effective on the stump, staying on message and appealing to audiences with a master's touch. But his Senate speeches have been devoted mostly to dismantling straw men. He has offered scant nuance, no surprises, and little depth. I listened to some of his now famous 21 hour speech in late September and read parts of it in the Congressional Record. I was expecting an organized, disciplined attack on the Affordable Care Act. Instead, I found rambling, disorganized, and anecdotal remarks that would have gotten him booted out of moot court in the first round. His speech will be remembered mostly for its length and his folksy rendition of Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham." The closest he came to wisdom was his recitation of King Solomon's advice from the Book of Proverbs. But here he realized belatedly that the Scripture he was invoking was, in effect, mocking him. "You will say the wrong thing if you talk too much, so be sensible and watch what you say," Cruz quoted. At least he then had the presence of mind to acknowledge "this is not an encouraging Proverb for someone in the midst of a filibuster."
Fourth, pick your fights carefully. It's best to win, but losing a principled and intelligent fight is okay.
Senator Kennedy was not a legislative powerhouse, but he played a constructive and even impressive role in a number of foreign policy debates such as those on Indochina, Algeria, and Eastern Europe. To the dismay of some his supporters, Kennedy also worked on labor reform legislation and showed an ability to strike a bipartisan agreement. Along the way he took hits from all sides: organized labor, business groups, southern Democrats, Republicans, and most of his political rivals. But he impressed his colleagues with his ability to write complex legislation, drive it through the Senate, negotiate a compromise with the House, and then hustle on to less controversial matters.
Cruz's role in the public policy debate has been oppositional. He's against comprehensive immigration reform, the Internal Revenue Service, the Transportation Safety Administration, and the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Education. His attempts to kill the 2010 health care law seem less like a well-organized, principled battle than a vainglorious attempt to get attention and thrust himself to the center of an important congressional debate. There is no evidence that he has thought carefully about how to repeal the law and replace it with something better. His effort appears largely a political pose to fire up his base.
Fifth, while it's not important that your colleagues like you, they should respect you and, at a minimum, not loathe you.
JFK was an aggressive, self-focused lawmaker, but he also knew he was part of a political party and operated within the norms of his day. He was a cool, reserved man who got along well with most of his colleagues, including his ideological antithesis, Barry Goldwater. He listened during debates, acknowledged the arguments of others, and assumed the good motives of his adversaries. He could disagree without being disagreeable.
Cruz began his Senate career by dispensing scorn on everyone: President Obama, congressional Democrats, many of his Senate Republican colleagues, and of course the "Washington establishment." A recent profile of him in the Washington Post said he "may be the most reviled man in the U.S. Senate, not least among his Republican colleagues." Cruz probably doesn't care that many of his colleagues dislike him, but there is no doubt these enemies will have plenty of opportunities to make his life uncomfortable. The Senate is likely to remain a very lonely place for Ted Cruz.
Sixth, to become president, you must win your party's nomination -- and you must also win the general election.
JFK was an impatient man but he understood the battle for the White House was arduous, perilous and would be won by the candidate who endured over the long haul. He realized he needed to win the Democratic nomination -- and then the general election. So Senator Kennedy developed a broadly appealing message that challenged the nation to stride boldly into the 1960s. His campaign united Democrats and won the support of some independents and Republicans.
Senator Cruz is the Rock Star of the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party. To them, he can do no wrong. He racks up big points by slamming Democrats and even those Republicans who are conciliatory. But his political base is very narrow. He excites a segment of the Republican Party but will generate strong opposition, if not animosity, from virtually all Democrats, many independents and mainstream Republicans. He is a sprinter who has leaped out of the starting blocks and has surged to an early lead. But the race to the White House is a marathon, not a 100 yard dash. The finish line is a long way off and there is a very good chance that Senator Cruz will not be around when the gold medal is awarded in the winner's circle.