Houston — “This is oil country, baby!”
It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon in Beaumont, Texas, an hour and change east of Houston, near the Gulf Coast, and about 40 people are gathered in a square surrounded by the old-timey buildings that make up the Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown Museum. I’m chatting with Kaye Goolsby, the grassroots chair for Senator Ted Cruz’s reelection campaign. The crowd here in oil country — “ohl,” like bowl — is twice what the organizers expected.
At last week’s Heritage Action policy summit, Cruz gave a speech on the bill to a Capitol Hill audience of national journalists and (for lack of a better term) think-tanky types.
The two pitches for his new bill have bookended a messy week. Two days after talking up the legislation at the Heritage Foundation, he attracted a fresh outpouring of vitriol from many Beltway Republicans when he refused to allow a debt-ceiling hike without a politically messy cloture vote.
Here’s the story he told the five hundred or so attendees at the Bexar County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner, the night before his Beaumont appearance, hosted in a corporate headquarters over plates of red meat and scalloped potatoes:
“I’m reminded of last fall,” Cruz starts, “when Heidi brought our two girls, Caroline and Catherine, to Washington. Caroline is 5 and Catherine’s 3. Catherine is the sweetest child; she is a ball of love. Caroline is a rascal. It’s how God made her from the moment she was born. I’ll tell you, I was driving the family down to Mount Vernon to see George Washington’s home, had a little bit of down time on Sunday afternoon. And we’re driving along, and Caroline asks her little sister, she says, ‘Catherine, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ Catherine says, ‘I want to work in the U.S. Senate. I want to work with Daddy.’ And Caroline says, ‘Oh, that’s boring! We’re going to be rock stars!’” There’s chuckling in the crowd.
“And then she tossed in the zinger,” Cruz continues. “She said, ‘Besides, Daddy’ll be dead by then!’”
“That’s a real conversation, I am not making this up! I was driving the truck, I turned around, I’m like, ‘Hello, I’m right in front of you!’ But I kind of wondered if maybe Caroline had been speaking with Republican leadership, and maybe she knew something I didn’t know.”
If that’s the case, Caroline would be the only Cruz keeping an open line of communication with leadership. The senator tells me he hasn’t talked with anyone in Senate Republican leadership since the debt-ceiling vote.
An energy-policy proposal gives Cruz a chance to expand his brand and shed some of the ire he’s attracted. Now he’s a guy with a politically marketable, Heritage-approved plan that aims to boost the economy, reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and (and he loves talking about this part) help the environment a bit, to boot.
Oil suits Cruz for at least two other reasons: First, obviously, is the fact that Texas has a lot of the stuff. And second, energy gives the freshman senator a chance to push a positive agenda that offers plenty of chances to take digs at the president.
How’s Cruz pitching his plan? First, he uses Dad jokes. It’s been a really cold winter in D.C. (by D.C. standards, at least), so the senator kicked off the Bexar and Heritage Action talks with these two weather jokes: “Al Gore told us this wouldn’t happen!” and “It was so cold I actually saw a Democrat with his hands in his own pockets!”
It’s the kind of joshing that generates two things without fail: synchronized eye-rolls from the Washington press corps and belly laughs from Texas Republicans.
The Al Gore reference, at least by my tally, is the closest the senator gets to referencing climate change in his energy plan pitches, but he has an angle for environmentalists.
“If you are a Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging Greenpeace activist” — this is how he puts it at the Spindletop speech, drawing audience chuckles — “you should love the Keystone pipeline,” which his bill would approve.
The pipeline would mean for fewer oil tankers and less oil by rail, he says, and that means fewer spills. It also would mean Canadian oil would be refined in American refineries, which are far cleaner than their Chinese counterparts.
To broaden the coalition, Bible-thumpers and Ayn Rand–lovers get shout-outs, too. The recent development of fracking technology is a “providential blessing,” he says at the Bexar speech. And its pioneer, George Mitchell, is “a modern-day Hank Rearden,” referring to the self-made steel innovator from Atlas Shrugged,” he says at all three talks.
He also talks about how the economic benefits of the Marcellus Shale stop at Pennsylvania’s northern state line: Fracking is legal in the Keystone state but not permitted in Andrew Cuomo’s New York.
The two Texas talks were promptly followed by chants calling for a presidential run, “Cruz 2016!” at one and “Cruz for President!” at another.
Cruz likes to say that if he has to choose between being reviled in Texas and adored in Washington or reviled in Washington and adored in Texas, he’ll always choose the latter.
He seems to be getting what he wanted. After his Spindletop talk wrapped up, there was a question-and-answer session of sorts that felt like a combination of a town hall and a press conference. One attendee, who wasn’t a member of the media, asked the senator if the tension between himself and Hill Republicans will hurt the bill’s prospects in the Senate. That’s more or less a moot point as long as Harry Reid is majority leader, but it shows tension is noticed far outside the Acela corridor.
After the speech, I sat down with the senator for a few minutes and we talked more about his relationships with Hill colleagues and his feelings about the Washington press corps.
He’s proud of his decision to force a cloture vote: “The last 55 times the debt ceiling’s been raised, 28 times Congress has attached meaningful conditions. It’s been, historically, the most effective leverage,” he says. “And the only reason it wasn’t this time is Republican leadership made the decision to actively lead the fight to help Barack Obama raise the debt ceiling with no spending reforms whatsoever.” (If no one in the chamber had continued debate as Cruz did, a cloture vote wasn’t necessary, and the debt ceiling could have passed with 51 votes, sparing Republicans from voting for it. Instead, Republicans had to join with Democrats to get 60 votes to end Cruz’s filibuster.)
I ask if — assuming McConnell wins reelection — the Texan will vote for him as the Republican leader for the next Congress.
“I’m going to leave that election and every other incumbent Republican election to the voters of their respective states,” he says.
He’s not just frustrated with leadership — the media are part of the problem, too. Journalists shirk their responsibilities, he says, by suggesting that raising the debt ceiling without attaching spending-reform prerequisites is the adult thing to do.
The debt–ceiling filibusterwas about transparency, he says; voters have more information about the senators who chose to vote for cloture. “It was curious, to say the least, to see self-styled journalistic entities speaking out against transparency and in favor of deceiving the voters,” he says.
The D.C. press corps sees itself as a “palace guard,” he continues, that often opposes transparency and honesty. “I think it’s fair to say that’s less than the traditional position for the Fourth Estate.”
“Less than the traditional position” is fairly restrained criticism, I say.
“I’m a very restrained guy!” he says, grinning.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.