Milbank: Cunning Cruz out-speaking Senate seniors
Is there nobody who can tell Ted Cruz to shut up?
The young senator from Texas has been on the job for about 100 days, but he has already turned upside down the Senate's ancient seniority system and is dominating his senior Republican colleagues. He's speaking for them on immigration, guns and any other topic that tickles his fancy; Republican leaders are seething at being outshone yet are terrified of challenging him.
Consider his news conference last week to promote the Republican alternative to gun control. With Cruz on the stage in the Senate TV studio: the bill's primary author, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a 32-year Senate veteran and longtime chairman or ranking member of the Finance and Judiciary committees; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (10 years in the Senate and eight in the House); and Indiana's Dan Coats (12 years in the Senate and eight in the House).
But Cruz took over the lectern and refused to relinquish it. He spoke 2,924 words for the cameras, more than Grassley (904), Graham (1,376) and Coats (360) - combined. Factoring in his dramatic pauses to convey sincerity and deep thought, Cruz's dominance was even more lopsided. The others shifted uncomfortably and looked awkwardly around the room. At one point, Graham requested a chance to speak. "Can I?" he asked Cruz.
Cruz is 42, the same age Joe McCarthy was when he amassed power in the Senate with his allegations of communist infiltration. Tail-gunner Ted debuted in the Senate this year with the insinuation that Chuck Hagel, now the defense secretary, may have been on the payroll of the North Koreans. Cruz also wrote in Politico that "Hagel's nomination has been publicly celebrated by the Iranian government." He later alleged that Democrats had told the Catholic Church to "change your religious beliefs or we'll use our power in the federal government to shut down your charities and your hospitals."
Now Cruz is turning his incendiary allegations against fellow Republicans. On immigration, he has described as amnesty the compromise that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and three other Republicans negotiated with Democrats. Cruz said such a plan would make "a chump" of legal immigrants. On guns, he said the background checks Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., negotiated in a bipartisan compromise would lead to a national gun registry - an outcome the doomed proposal explicitly prohibited.
Democrats see a potential bogeyman in Cruz because of his outrageous pronouncements, and reporters love his inflammatory quotes. Republican leaders, however, don't know how to control this monster they created.
GOP lawmakers encouraged the rise of the tea party, which now dominates Republican primaries and threatens the same leaders who nurtured it. Cruz's fellow Texan John Cornyn, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, could face a primary challenge next year and therefore can't afford to cross Cruz, who beat an establishment Republican in the 2012 primary. Likewise, the Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is up for re-election and has to keep on the good side of tea party favorites such Sen. Rand Paul, also of Kentucky, and Cruz.
I've argued before that Cruz is more cunning than ideological. He's Ivy League-educated and a skilled debater who has perfected a look of faux earnestness that suggests his every pronouncement is the most important oration since Gettysburg. Cruz has correctly calculated that the way to power among Senate Republicans is through attention-grabbing accusations.
On immigration, his Latino credentials have helped him to undermine Rubio's bipartisanship. On guns, Cruz's high profile required Grassley to give the upstart a premium chunk of floor time for his trademark falsehoods. Cruz claimed his bill was the "result of multiple hearings in the Judiciary Committee." (It was never brought before the panel.) He claimed the opposing legislation would extend "background checks to private transactions between private individuals." (The bill applied only to advertised sales.) Off the floor, he made the patently false claim that the "so-called 'gun show loophole'" doesn't exist.
If Republicans are willing to look the other way when Cruz assaults the facts, they may find it increasingly grating to endure his assaults on their dignity. At their news conference on guns, Grassley was made to stand silently for half an hour while Cruz gave an eight-minute opening statement (more than twice the length of Grassley's) and fielded six questions before yielding to his senior colleague. "I'm just going to say one thing," Grassley said, "and then I'm going to have to go."
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.