Ted Cruz is no Joe McCarthy, as so many liberals bizarrely claim. But he might be the conservative Barack Obama.
It says something about today's political climate that both liberals and conservatives may find that latter comparison more offensive. Bear with me.
Both men have impeccable educational credentials. Obama went to Occidental College, transferred to Columbia University and got his law degree from Harvard. Cruz went to Princeton University, where he was a national champion debater, and got a law degree from Harvard. Cruz's legal career was objectively more impressive than Obama's. He clerked on the appellate court and for Chief Justice William Rehnquist on the Supreme Court. He held numerous prestigious jobs in and out of government. Like Obama, he taught law, but Cruz was also the solicitor general of Texas and argued before the Supreme Court nine times.
National Review editor Rich Lowry put his finger on one plausible source of elite liberal hatred for Cruz: betrayal. "Cruz is from the intellectual elite, but not of it, a tea party conservative whose politics are considered gauche at best at the storied universities where he studied. He is, to borrow the words of the 2009 H.W. Brands biography of FDR, a traitor to his class." (I hate to correct my boss, but Brands didn't coin that phrase).
What liberals hate in Cruz, they love in Obama: a product of an elite education who confirms all their feelings of superiority. Obama took the desiccated ideas of campus liberalism and made them seem vibrant, stylish and even populist.
Both men made political hay of their ethnicity. It worked better for Obama, but it's worth noting that Cruz has an impressive list of "firsts" for a Latino, which he proudly — and rightly — highlights in his official biography.
The real similarities, however, come in the form of their approach to politics. Both landed in the U.S. Senate, running with larger ambitions in mind. Moreover, both grasp that historically the Senate whittles away presidential timber. Like John F. Kennedy, Obama was there just long enough to run for president. And while Obama was there, his chief goal was burnishing his presidential image, not racking up legislative accomplishments.
In 2012, President Obama said the "most important lesson" of his first term was that "you can't change Washington from the inside." What is required is populist pressure from the outside. This was an odd claim on two counts. First, it's not true. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, was an entirely inside affair, an ugly partisan one involving mercenary horse-trading and countless backroom deals with industry and unions. Second, Obama, the community organizer, always believed salvation lay in organizing a movement. It was the premise at the heart of his 2008 campaign in which he told adoring throngs, "We are the ones we've been waiting for."
Still, this conviction led Obama to turn his presidential campaign into a private political army intended to rally his base for his legislative agenda. That effort has failed utterly. Organizing for America couldn't even organize a congressional vote on gun control, and Obama has ordered his Environmental Protection Agency to implement his climate agenda unilaterally.
Cruz's fight to defund Obamacare rests on an outsider approach. As he recently told radio host Hugh Hewitt, "The strategy on this all along has been directed not towards Washington but towards the American people. It has been directed towards building a grass-roots tsunami."
If Cruz's effort fails — and I fear it will — it will be for the same reasons that Obama's second term has been such a legislative dud. The way you bring change to Washington is through elections. After the elections, change comes from the unsightly sausage-making processes of politics. Both Cruz and Obama have palpable disdain for the consensus-building and glad-handing that these processes require.
Of course, there are huge differences between Obama and Cruz — the most important is that they have completely divergent philosophies. That may matter most, but it isn't everything. The inside game matters too. Cruz likes pointing out Obama's failures; he should also learn from them.