This was the week the long-simmering rivalry between Ted Cruz and Rand Paul finally broke out into the open. Ostensibly allies in their right-of-the-mainstream-of-the-GOP views—so much so that John McCain infamously branded both of them “wacko birds”—Paul and Cruz are actually vying for the same niche in the 2016 presidential race. They both desperately want to be the conservative movement’s standard-bearer in the GOP primaries.
For much of the past year, the Cruz vs. Paul competition has taken place largely out of public (or the Beltway’s) sight—at Senate Republican conference lunches; during sit-downs with GOP donors; in speeches to Iowa pastors—but last week it became blaringly obvious. Last Sunday, Cruz went on ABC’s “This Week” and, in the midst of calling Paul a “good friend,” trashed the Kentucky Senator’s less-than-hawkish foreign policy views, invoking Ronald Reagan and arguing that “the United States has a responsibility to defend our values.” That led to Paul, one day later, penning an op-ed for Breitbart.com in which, while not mentioning Cruz by name, he blasted certain hawkish Republicans for wrapping themselves in Reagan’s cloak. For good measure, Paul took another shot at Cruz—who frequently mocks Bob Dole and John McCain’s unsuccessful presidential campaigns as “stand[ing] for nothing”—by “remind[ing] anyone who thinks we will win elections by trashing previous Republican nominees or holding oneself out as some paragon in the mold of Reagan, that splintering the party is not the route to victory.”
The Cruz vs. Paul rivalry is, in fact, taking place in two arenas. In one of them—on matters of policy—its basic contours have played out in a predictable fashion.Cruz, as Matt Lewis notes, is trying to position himself ever so slightly closer to the GOP mainstream than Paul in order to argue that “Paul’s just a little too far out in right field.” I may be a wacko bird, Cruz is essentially saying, but when it comes to our policy positions, Rand is wackier.
Paul, meanwhile, has forcefully staked out heterodoxical positions on everything from prison sentencing reform to drone policy to defense spending. Yes, has occasionally trimmed his policy sails a bit so as to not get too far outside the lines, on issues, for instance, like Israel. But, for the most part, he’s been quite willing to pick big fights with his fellow Republicans on matters of policy—just as he said he would when he ran for office.
On the personality side, though, the contrasts are much more surprising. Paul, the rebel, has gotten along fine with his fellow Republicans. Cruz, the Ivy-laureled resume-builder, has managed to infuriate the power structure.
That’s been quite out of character for both men. When Cruz arrived in Washington last year, it was assumed he would bring a moderating influence to the Tea Party, or at least serve as a bridge between it and the GOP establishment. Yes, he had run an insurgent campaign in Texas’s Republican primary—beating the establishment choice, poor old David Dewhurst—but, prior to that run, Cruz had spent years comfortably working within that establishment, from his college days at Princeton to Harvard Law School to a Supreme Court clerkship to the Bush administration to the Supreme Court bar. His CV revealed a man who possessed an impressive skill for navigating powerful institutions and, not unrelatedly, ingratiating himself to institutional power. He’d seek out one mentor who’d then introduce him to a new one. Chuck Cooper, the eminent conservative lawyer whose firm once employed a young Cruz, once recalled to me, “Ted had clerked for Rehnquist and I had as well, and before that he’d clerked for Mike Luttig, who’s a very close friend of mine, so it was through them that Ted really came to my attention.” In other words, Cruz had climbed the greasy pole through his relationships.
But since Cruz has gotten to the Senate, he’s done a complete 180. Far from trying to work within the institution and suck up to power, he’s sought to blow up the former and piss off the latter—whether it was his fight over Obamacare that resulted in a government shutdown last fall or, just last month, his use of a procedural maneuver that essentially forced the Senate Republican leadership to vote for a “clean” debt-ceiling increase. Meanwhile, despite the fact that Cruz is the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s vice chairman for grassroots outreach, he’s refused to endorse his Senate colleagues Mitch McConnell, Pat Roberts, and Thad Cochran in their primary fights. In general, Cruz has appeared to go out of his way to tick off the powers that be in the most petty, pointless, and personal manner possible. “They don’t keep Senate records about this kind of thing,” John Dickerson wrote last fall, “but it’s likely that no senator has created as many enemies in his party in as short a time as the junior senator from Texas.”
In other words,Cruz is behaving the way everyone assumed Rand Paul would. Before Paul arrived in the Senate in 2011, he’d spent much of his life being a pain in the ass. As a college student at Baylor who loved to tweak the conservative (and religiously devout) administration; as an ophthalmologist who founded a renegade ophthalmological organization to protest the certification rules of the medical specialty’s long-established professional group; as an insurgent Tea Party candidate who ran against the Kentucky GOP establishment’s (and Mitch McConnell’s) handpicked candidate, Paul was a man who thumbed his nose at institutions and institutional power.
And yet, in the Senate, he’s tried to be a team player—especially when it’s come to his relationship with his fellow Kentucky Senator and Republican leader McConnell, the man he was implicitly running against back in 2010. Before launching his drone filibuster last year, Paul made sure to clear the move with McConnell. Later, he provided McConnell some crucial Tea Party cover back home in Kentucky by not joining Cruz in his shutdown crusade. And, while Cruz has shirked his NRSC duties, Paul, according to an NRSC staffer, routinely shows up to make his fundraising calls for the group; more importantly, he has endorsed McConnell in his primary fight back in Kentucky (albeit maybe not always as wholeheartedly as he could have). All of which has endeared—or, if not endeared, at least made Paul tolerable—to large and unexpected swaths of the GOP establishment. When Mitt Romney hosted a political confab in Park City, Utah, last year, Paul was in attendance. (Cruz was not.) And Paul’s efforts to play nice have even made some of his policy views more palatable to the GOP establishment. Just consider how sentencing reform has become an issue an increasing number of Republicans now embrace.
It’s a bit too tidy, though, to conclude that what this all really means is that Paul is a personable guy and Cruz is a jerk.
In fact, Cruz’s and Paul’s behavior reflects the political bet each man is making. As Julia Ioffe wrote in her Paul profile last year, “If he wants to win the nomination, he needs the party’s power brokers.” In other words, Paul is adhering to the standard rule of GOP presidential primaries: Even though he’s not running as the establishment candidate, he believes he can’t win if the establishment is actively working against him. That’s made Paul a more interesting—and, so far, more effective—Senator than his rival. As one advisor close to Paulworld once put it to me, “Rand came here not to be something but to do things.”
Cruz clearly has taken a different approach, and the thing he most wants to be is the guy the establishment hates. Despite his sterling pedigree, he reads the political moment as such that having the establishment work against him is actually an advantage. And maybe he’s right that this antipathy will help carry him all the way to the White House. Of course, at that point, he’ll need new establishment help to get legislation through his old Capitol Hill stomping grounds—which will offer another chance to see how much of his abrasive Senatorial style is genuine and how much of it is a calculation.