By Michael Tackett
WASHINGTON — Ted Cruz didn't come quietly into the Senate. The freshman from Texas feuded with Sen. John McCain. He stole the spotlight by chatting with a swarm of reporters when Republican leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor to end the government shutdown. He calls his party's establishment encrusted and entrenched.
And he's just getting started.
Cruz, 42, marks the rise of an era of the unilateral politician in Washington, one who doesn't rely on a party for money, platform or structure.
"Our focus should be far less on party than it should be on listening to the people who elected us," said Cruz, who was the leading advocate of opposing Obamacare even if it meant shutting down the government.
"The greatest divide we have in Washington is not between Republicans and Democrats. It's between entrenched career politicians in both parties and the American people," he said in an interview.
That anti-party posture, even in the tradition-bound Senate, is possible because of changes in campaign-finance laws and Supreme Court rulings coupled with the explosion in the use of social media in politics.
"He has an independent source of money and direct access to the media, and that makes him very hard to control," said James Thurber, a professor of government at American University in Washington. "It gives him power for himself but not collectively and represents the rise of extreme individualism."
The ascendancy of Cruz, who is considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, reflects the tension within the Republican Party between those who say they are losing elections because they aren't holding to their ideals firmly enough and the ones who argue that they must be more pragmatic to win national contests.
It's a tug-of-war seen most recently in the Virginia governor's race that Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe had the support of Republican businessmen who concluded that Cuccinelli's opposition to such issues as abortion rights and climate science would detract from an agenda focused on jobs and the economy.
Candidates can't win "by trying to be priests of purity," said Haley Barbour, who has served as governor of Mississippi and chairman of the Republican National Committee. "In politics, purity is a loser. Purity is the enemy of victory."
Barbour said changes in campaign-finance laws have weakened the relationship between candidates and parties, accelerating the rise of elected officials who show little allegiance to traditional organizations.
"It certainly reduces the need to be a team player within an organization if you are talking about the organization being a party," Barbour said.
Unilateral politicians represent a danger to his party because some of them attack fellow Republicans even when they agree on policy, Barbour said. He cited the fact that Republicans are united in their opposition to the Affordable Care Act and divided on how to combat the health-care law. Many, including House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, disagreed with Cruz's shutdown strategy and warned against it.
"This is about tactics," said Barbour, 66. "Ultimately, and rightly, the leadership decides the strategy and the tactics, and I think Cruz shows us why."
That's a view not shared by the first-year senator. In May, while debating the debt ceiling, Cruz responded to a call from McCain, an Arizona Republican, that he and others trust their party by saying: "Let me be clear, I don't trust the Republicans and I don't trust the Democrats."
The partial government closing drove the Republican Party's approval ratings to historic lows and took its focus off the failed rollout of Obamacare, Barbour said.
A Pew Research Center Poll published Oct. 16 found that the anti-tax tea party was at a record low in popularity, with even many fellow Republicans "viewing the movement negatively." Forty-nine percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable opinion. Among those who said they backed the Tea Party, Cruz's popularity soared to 74 percent favorable from 47 percent in July.
"For everyone who criticized me for the quote-unquote tactics of standing strong against Obamacare, the simple follow- up question is revealing," Cruz said. "If you do not like this tactic, what is your alternative? Far too many in Washington were content to give speeches about Obamacare but do absolutely nothing to stop the real harm that millions of Americans are experiencing."
Some Republicans support Cruz's approach. "Ted Cruz is good for the Republican Party," said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and 2012 presidential candidate. "That doesn't mean we should all march to his particular ideas, but I'd rather have a party that has Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee than one that doesn't."
Among Republicans, Gingrich said, "There has been a long period of tension between what I would call the accommodationist wing and the movement that really wants to change Washington. It's a great brawl. The forces of real change are winning."
Cruz's approach also stands in contrast to how both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama conducted themselves in their first year in the senate, avoiding the spotlight. Clinton used to sit for lectures on the chamber's traditions from the late Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, and avoided going on Sunday political talk shows. Obama adopted that model.
"He's a show horse, not a workhorse," Thurber said of Cruz. "And that had been a very strong norm for 50 years."
"The consequences for the Republican Party are very serious because they don't have a clear strategy and message that they cohere to. Basically, they have a civil war going on and part of that civil war is the balkanization of positions."
The fundraising model has changed, too, increasing the likelihood that other politicians can follow Cruz's lead. Anthony Corrado, a professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and an authority on campaign finance, said it is possible now for candidates to have a financial constituency and to generate support for candidacies "without the traditional party structure."
"What we are seeing — and I think we saw the early roots of this in 2012 — now is the financial constituencies are starting to divide along more ideological lines within the partisan sphere," Corrado said.
"That will fuel intra-party divisions and factionalism," he said. "To the extent that party support served as a constraint on candidates, that constraint is becoming less effective. The rules now facilitate more unilateral behavior."
That explains why a group of Republican congressmen, with Cruz most prominent among them, "has decided that ideology and principle is what's most important and they don't care much about the operations of the Senate and government."
Cruz said he sees "a new paradigm in politics, the rise of the grassroots." As he campaigns for Republican candidates in 2014 and ponders his own future, he will be testing whether that new model holds.
"He is a star now burning through the atmosphere, and the issue is whether he is going to burn out returning to Earth," Corrado said.
— With assistance from Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington.