Ted Cruz Showed He Can Talk the Talk, but His Walk Is Harder to Measure

Cruz leaves the Senate chamber after his 21-hour speech that ended Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Ted Cruz undeniably secured a spot in the annals of senatorial theatrics at the stroke of noon Wednesday, when parliamentary inevitability required him to yield the floor after 21 hours and 19 minutes.

Other than applause from a modest collection of fellow Republicans, did he gain much of genuine worth for his considerable talk-a-thon troubles? The ledger of political costs and benefits looks close to impossible to push toward balance.

Not so for his likely presidential rivals, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, whose mastery of the Senate juggling act looks pretty good by comparison.

About the clearest good for Cruz was that he emphatically made good on the promise at the heart of his campaign last year for the open seat in Texas: He would not go to Washington to make friends but to shake up the capital’s outdated ways of doing business.

His insistence on acting out his Mr. Smith fantasy, without any hope of stopping the continued funding for Obamacare, spawned glib talk about a new entry for the procedural playbook: the faux-libuster. But that approach earned him not a single visible additional Senate ally, while prompting the already considerable disdain for him in the Republican as well as Democratic cloakrooms to spread and intensify.

(The nine senators who helped him out on the floor — with speeches masking as questions that allowed Cruz to give his vocal chords an occasional break — were the same tea party types who have been part of his coterie all year.)

And the provocative jabs Cruz took at the strategies (and strategists) from both parties amid his “Green Eggs and Ham” meanderings drew bipartisan complaints that someone had been allowed in the club who could drag its collective reputation still lower by coarsening deliberative discourse in the Senate as never before.

An informal online adage, known as "Godwin’s law," holds that the first person to make a Nazi analogy is considered to have lost the argument. By that standard, Cruz’s red card came just half an hour in — although anyone who hadn’t tuned in yet got a chance on Wednesday to hear a particularly exorcised John McCain repudiate his fellow Republican for likening lawmakers willing to acquiesce in the implementation of Obamacare to the Hitler appeasers of the 1930s.

Outside the Capitol, though, Cruz’s stagecraft had some tangible benefits. His visage dominated cable news coverage of the budget showdown for a dozen news-hour cycles, during which hardly a slick hair on his 42-year-old head slipped out of place and his sky-blue Windsor knot slipped only a little off his white collar. His black tennis shoes, not the ostrich cowboy boots he normally favors at big moments, kept him looking comfortably in command at the podium all through the night. In other words, Cruz got the footage of vigorous anti-establishment determination he’ll want in the initial television spots for his coming presidential campaign.

Saying essentially the same thing over and over around the clock, while keeping the passion level high and making the rhetoric sound forever fresh, was also terrific practice for the stump speeches he’ll be making in early primary states two years from now.

And by gaining 20,000 new Twitter followers while holding forth — with aides tweeting on his behalf back at the office — Cruz crested 153,000 and surpassed the total for state Sen. Wendy Davis, the other Texas politician who used a filibuster this year to propel her national profile. (Her opposition to abortion restrictions has made her the Democrats’ favored gubernatorial candidate next year.)  That social-media win was another reminder that national political followings aren’t generated the way they used to be, and Cruz knows what works now.

But followers aren’t the same as donors. And there was no indication that #MakeDCListen had anything remotely close to the fundraising success of Kentucky’s Rand Paul, who raised almost $100,000 for the Senate GOP campaign organization during his 12-hour, 52-minute #StandwithRand actual filibuster in March — to promote the much more niche cause of preventing drone strikes on American citizens in the United States.

The fact that Cruz is nominally among the leaders of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Paul isn't only underscores how the Kentuckian has been able to make his crusade a clear political winner, as well as a policy victory, in ways to which Cruz hardly appears to aspire. (The Justice Department gave Paul the written promise he wanted.)  Paul’s reputation these days is that he’s remained just collegial enough to stay on the team without being co-opted by it — willing to take on his leadership without personally vilifying  them.

Now comes Florida’s Marco Rubio, the third senator eyeing the 2016 Republican nomination, who may have benefited most from the Cruz crusade. He and Paul both lent their names and not a small amount of their time to their rival’s C-SPAN2 show, though both avoided Cruz’s temptations to join in criticizing the establishment. Rubio’s contributions were more timely, though, because many in the tea party crowd have come perilously close to abandoning him after his decisive role in the Senate’s path-to-citizenship immigration compromise.

Rubio was comfortable enough in his political skin to slip away from the Senate on Tuesday night — to get to a Capitol Hill Club fundraiser for Gov. Terry E. Branstad of first-caucus-in-the-nation Iowa. Cruz, another scheduled headliner, was pinned down elsewhere by his own devices.

That may foreshadow the Senate’s new presidential campaign dynamic. If Rubio never sees fit to mount a profile-raising filibuster of his own, it will mean the place won’t have to be held hostage to every aspirant’s morality play.