Opinion
Welcome Back to the Senate, Ted Cruz!
A cautionary tale about the limits of ambition alone

Republican presidential candidate Texas Senator Ted Cruz speaks at the American Conservative Union's CPAC conference at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ted Cruz loves to mock the "Washington cartel," but after his loss in Indiana, Cruz is going to end up back in his day job at Cartel HQ any day now. With California still to vote, Cruz can’t win the GOP nomination outright. Even the tragically named “Lose with Cruz” revolution is losing its steam.

But what will a welcome-back party look like for a man when he calls his boss a liar on the Senate floor and routinely maligns his co-workers as “mendacious” in his stump speeches? My guess is the LBJ room won’t be crowded for the party lunches the day Ted Cruz comes home.

Of course, he'll hardly be the first senator to come back to Capitol Hill after a failed presidential run.  John Kerry did it, albeit reluctantly, before getting plucked to be President Obama’s secretary of State. John McCain did it, too, and he resumed his happy warrior status on the Armed Services Committee.  Just this year, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have already gotten back to business on the Hill, and Bernie Sanders won’t be far behind.

A Hated Man

But more so than anyone before him, Cruz returns to Washington a hated man, especially when it comes to members of his own party. Is "hate" too strong a word?  Let's review.

Thanks to the beauty of video, we all now know former Speaker John Boehner considers Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh” and that Rep. Peter King is also not a fan.  (Direct quote to MSNBC, “I’ll take cyanide” rather than live under a President Cruz.)

Sen. Lamar Alexander suggested that Cruz missed the kindergarten lesson on basic respect, while Dan Coats complained that Cruz’s entire presidential bid has been about throwing him and his fellow senators “under the bus.” Rubio and Paul fought bitterly with Cruz in the campaign and each accused him in a debate of being willing to say or do anything to get elected.

The pro-Cruz caucus was smaller, a lot smaller. Just six senators have endorsed him so far, including his closest confidante, Mike Lee, who waited nearly a year to get behind the Cruz campaign, and Jim Risch, who asked, “Did I?” when Wolf Blitzer inquired if he had thrown his backing behind Cruz. A stampede to greatness it was not. And these are still the Republicans we're talking about.

When he does come back, Cruz will notice that a few things have changed since he’s been away, and not just the new shrink wrap on the Senate side of the Capitol. The Senate GOP caucus has a few new kids on the block who have taken over when Cruz left off, but without calling anyone a liar.  Tom Cotton has emerged as a new leading voice on national defense, while Ben Sasse has cornered the market on constitutional talk the way Cruz once did. Cotton and Sasse both have cute kids, too, by the way, but thankfully they don’t talk about "spanking" nearly as much as Cruz seems to like to.

Cruz may also notice that the once-rumored “tea party takeover” of the Senate has sort of petered out while he was gone. Not only are its three leaders, Cruz, Rubio and Paul, all coming back empty-handed from the presidential campaign, but Lee's lost leadership gambit last month shows there’s still more to rising to power in the Senate than merely wanting to be in charge.

More of the Same

Along with the changes in the Senate, Cruz will see that many, many things have stayed the same. He’ll still be 82nd in seniority, right behind Angus King and Tim Kaine. And instead of campaign rallies and a dedicated stable of traveling press embeds, Cruz’s bully pulpits will once again be the aptly-named Senate Swamp and his chair way over on the side of the Senate Judiciary Committee dais.

Worst of all, Cruz will go back to needing the help of other senators to get anything done, but getting a sufficient second might be harder than getting elected president ever was.

Taken together, it all seems to be a cautionary tale about the limits of ambition alone, as well as the wisdom of a scorched-earth strategy in a chamber that still puts some value on collegiality and decorum. It's also the end of Ted Cruz’s first act in the Senate. He'll have to decide now whether he'll follow Rubio's lead, by heading for the exits, or McCain's lead, by settling into the chamber and its idiosyncrasies to do the hard work of working with people.

Either way, Ted Cruz will find out that not only can you go home again, sometimes you have to.  But it's not always easy to find your way.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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