What's Next For Ted Cruz? A Former President Might Hold the Answers

Ted Cruz walking down a hall with reporters taking pictures and asking him questions as he's escorte...

These days there doesn't seem to be a politician in America who is both as loved and hated as Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

With the adoration of Tea Partiers and the antipathy of just about everyone else, the newest conservative it-boy has captured the nation's political imagination. Following his now-infamous 21-hour fauxlibuster, his political puppetry of the House of Representatives that all but assured the government shutdown, and the fact that Cruz's poll numbers with conservative Republicans have skyrocketed while the overall public view of the Tea Party has tanked, the one question on everyone's mind is: What's next for Ted Cruz? The answer may lie in the story of another Senate icon from the Lone Star State, Lyndon Johnson.

At first blush, comparing Lyndon Johnson to Ted Cruz comes off as ridiculous and contrived. Their many differences are manifest to political onlookers, a list that appropriately begins with their respective approaches to the Senate and their colleagues in that chamber. During his 12 years in the Senate — including a six-year stint as Senate majority leader — Lyndon Johnson ruled with an iron fist. A master of negotiation and manipulation, Johnson almost always knew how to get other senators to fall in line behind him.

"The beautiful thing about Lyndon Johnson," says the political scientist Sean Theriault, "was that he knew more about the constituencies of most of the Senators than those senators did. So he would study and figure out what it is exactly that each senator would need in order to sign onto the plans that Lyndon Johnson had in the Senate."

This wheeling-and-dealing approach to enacting policy goals could not be more different than that of Cruz. Cruz appears to take pleasure in agitating his colleagues, a style that has led to a less-than-stellar relationship with his fellow members of Congress.

"[Ted Cruz] is going to utilize the space that the media is giving him to really attack the institution from the outside, but without any collegiality whatsoever to his fellow colleagues in the Senate who he might be hurting," Theriault continues. "In fact I would even go so far as to say that, if there's any collateral damage in his relationships with other senators, all the better, because it only proves even more what an outsider he truly is."

Collegiality is hardly the only area in which the two senators part ways. Another is the constituency to which the senators have chosen to appeal. This hearkens back to the insider game versus the outsider game, the era in which power was sought inside the institutional framework of the Senate versus outside of it.

"Cruz and Johnson couldn't be more dissimilar in how they are with respect to the Senate," says Professor David King, senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "[Johnson] completely embraced the establishment and the rules and traditions of the Senate. But that was the case with almost all senators then.

"Cruz sees his main constituency not within the Senate but... outside the Senate. And that's a constituency that sees the Senate as the enemy — as a re-election of a corrupted and ineffective government. So Senator Cruz, because his main focus is outside of the Senate, treats his fellow senators as if they are corrupted themselves, and part of a corrupted system."

While the two mens' actual constituencies could not be more different, it is this skillful maximization of their bases of support that is perhaps their greatest similarity. Professor Gregory Wawro, the deputy chair of Columbia University's department of political science and an acclaimed congressional historian, shares this assessment. 

"They both come from particular wings of their parties. Ted Cruz is coming from the much more conservative, Tea Party wing of the Republicans. Johnson was from the Southern wing of the party. In that sense they both have, sort of, coalitions within a coalition that supports them. For Johnson, his coalition that formed behind him, of Southern Democrats, helped propel him to the highest office in the land. I suspect that Ted Cruz might be thinking along the same lines — that by doing what he’s doing, by interacting with the individuals in the House, that he’s basically trying to bolster this coalition within a coalition. I suspect because of higher aspirations."

Those suspicions of higher aspirations have been readily stoked by Cruz: he has already made several trips to the early presidential primary states, despite having spent less than a year in Washington. This in-your-face approach was shared by Johnson, who points out geared many of his decisions while in the Senate towards a future presidential run, as Professor King points out.

"Johnson was confrontational with his colleagues, almost always strategically, and I think Senator Cruz is confrontational with the American public, presumably also strategically. They both used conflict and tension productively on behalf of things that they care about."

A full-on confrontational approach could, however, prove detrimental to Cruz's presidential ambitions. Many of the political right's most ardently conservative politicians were popular for a while and then flamed out due to their hyper-partisanship. Professor Wawro points to this as possible evidence that Cruz may be approaching the end of his shelf life.

"People who have, especially from the more Tea Party wing of the Republican party, been pushing more extreme stances, being more in the spotlight, I don’t think has served them very well with respect to aspirations to higher office. Michele Bachmann, she’s giving up her seat in the House. It doesn’t seem like she’s going to pursue, or continue to pursue much, her ambitions for higher office. Sarah Palin has been on the sidelines with respect to pursuing higher office. One could conjecture that Cruz may end up in the same position: burn brightly but burn quickly."

There is, however, the alternative view: that Senator Cruz's scorched-earth tactics will only continue to endear him to the hard right, the only constituency to which he must appeal in order to advance to the general election. Recent analyses and polling support this view, as does Professor Theriault.

"Among his ideological faithfuls, he’s becoming an even bigger hero... But I would say that his reputation, on a nationwide scale, is being hurt at the same time. And he would quite simply say that that’s fine, and he would agree with that. He would say that it’s his job to convince his followers that he will eventually win the war against the establishment. He’s hopeful that he is also persuading more people to sign up to his side, but it certainly doesn’t look like that’s what happening."

But even if Cruz were to win the presidential nomination, it's possible his run would be torpedoed by the GOP establishment. Indeed, this has already begun to happen. And should this occur, Senator Cruz may find himself wishing he had opted for more congeniality instead of grandstanding; more listening instead of talking. For, as Lyndon Johnson himself often said, "You aren't learning anything when you're talking."