WASHINGTON — Ted Cruz did not lose gracefully.
The young senator from Texas, after just nine months on the job, had managed to drag down his Republican Party to historic unpopularity. But as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., went to the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon to announce a deal that would begin to repair the damage Cruz inflicted, the renegade couldn’t resist one more poke at his leadership.
As McConnell was speaking on the floor about his compromise to end the government shutdown and to avoid a federal default, Cruz marched up to the bank of TV cameras outside the Senate chamber to deliver his own statement. CNN’s Dana Bash told him that the news networks were airing McConnell’s speech live. “Do you want to wait until the leaders are done?” she asked.
Cruz did not want to wait. He launched right into a condemnation of the deal McConnell had negotiated. “Unfortunately, once again, it appears the Washington establishment is refusing to listen to the American people,” the Texan intoned, his protruding chin bouncing as the vitriol poured from the lips above it. “The United States Senate has stayed with the traditional approach of the Washington establishment of maintaining the status quo.”
CNN pulled away from McConnell when the sore loser began talking.
The amount of wreckage Cruz has caused in such a short time is truly awe-inspiring. He has damaged his party, hurt the economy, lowered the nation’s standing and set back the conservative cause. But appearing at the Capitol on Wednesday morning, he wore a broad smile as reporters and cameras surrounded him to learn what further mayhem he was planning.
“Will you filibuster?” called out Nancy Cordes of CBS News.
“I’m heading to this meeting now,” he replied, referring to a session held by McConnell outlining the compromise.
“Was your fight against Obamacare worth it?” asked Politico’s Seung Min Kim.
“As I said, I’m heading to this meeting now.”
He walked slowly — the better to savor the attention — as reporters clamored for information. “Will you try to block this?” “What’s your plan?” Reporters and photographers slammed into one another. A tour group was pressed up against a wall. “Oh my God!” a woman screamed.
Cruz’s stroll across the second floor of the Capitol was a tour of the disruption he had caused: Past the office of Sen. John Cornyn, the fellow Texas Republican whose re-election Cruz has refused to endorse; alongside the Senate chamber, where he spoke for 21 straight hours last month; past the office of McConnell, whose leadership he had undermined; and down the hall toward the office of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, against whom Cruz had encouraged a rebellion. At a dinner at Tortilla Coast restaurant Monday night, he encouraged House Republicans to resist Boehner’s attempts at compromise. “Cruz-Led Conservatives Put Boehner in Double Bind” was Wednesday’s headline in Roll Call.
As they filed in to hear McConnell’s compromise, Republican senators made little effort to conceal their frustration with Cruz. “This has been a very bad two weeks for the Republican brand, for conservatism,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Cruz did make one gesture that acknowledged he may have gone too far: He said he wouldn’t use procedural hurdles to delay a vote on the debt-limit bill, a move that could have forced the nation into default. “I never had any intention of delaying the timing of this vote,” he told a clump of reporters as he emerged from the Senate session, even though he had declined to disavow such a delay when asked only an hour earlier.
But otherwise, Cruz refused to admit defeat. “The American people rose up and spoke with an overwhelming voice and at least at this stage Washington isn’t listening to them,” he said. “But this battle will continue.” (Actually, what’s overwhelming is the 70 percent of Americans who think Republicans put politics ahead of the country in the shutdown.)
Cruz left the reporters after a few minutes, but when he noticed the TV lights and microphones outside the Senate chamber, he stopped and reversed himself. After repeating his statement for the cameras, he took a question from CNN’s Bash, who pointed out that there has been “a lot of bruising political warfare internally, and you’ve got nothing for it.”
“I disagree with the premise,” Cruz informed her. He said the House vote to defund Obamacare, rejected by the Senate, was “a remarkable victory.”
It was a revealing statement: For Cruz, the victory is not the achievement but the fight.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. (c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group