Why you should care
Outspoken obstruction never goes out of style in the U.S. Senate. Whether it’ll serve Cruz on the campaign trail is a different issue.
Leaping into the 2016 presidential fray, Ted Cruz proclaimed it a time for truth, a time for liberty and “a time to reclaim the Constitution of the United States.”
It also, apparently, is Jesse Helms time in America again.
Cruz, the controversial Texas senator, has long and very ardently admired Helms, the late North Carolinian known to many as “Senator No.” At a 2013 Heritage Foundation event, Cruz acknowledged that his first-ever political donation went to Helms and then proclaimed, “We need 100 more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate.” He had been a senator for only a few months by then.
Cruz may have been speaking at the Fourth Annual Jesse Helms Lecture Series, but his veneration of the ornery Southerner was far from staged. Anyone following the Texas lawyer’s Senate career could already tell that Cruz — like Helms, a persistent obstructionist and perhaps the most disliked member of the chamber — had hewed closely to Senator No’s playbook as part of his own meteoric political rise. Here are a few of the tactics and issues that Cruz, like Helms before him, has embraced.
1. Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Stick
Like Helms, a longtime Raleigh journalist and radio newscaster before entering politics, Cruz — himself a national debate champion at Princeton and an accomplished appellate litigator — is a gifted orator, a useful tool in the pontificating Senate. Both have deployed speech early and often, droning on when necessary as a political weapon. In 1973, his first year in the Senate, Helms was a force of nature, with a 96 percent attendance rate, 138 speeches and 19,963 phone calls, and he would become famous for staging a 16-day filibuster in 1983 to block (unsuccessfully) the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Thirty years later, in his inaugural year in the same chamber, Cruz also embraced the filibuster, grabbing national attention with a 21-hour attempt to deny funding (unsuccessfully) for the Affordable Care Act, at one point reading Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham to his two daughters watching at home.
2. Making Friends, Not Laws
Helms- and Cruz-style hijinks inevitably produce little in the way of legislative results, but that’s partly the point. Helms was famous for not only filibustering voting rights laws and other legislation he opposed on principle, but also for championing doomed-to-fail bills — like one allowing Americans to remove anti-pollution devices from cars — in order to please frustrated conservatives by making their causes his own. Helms’ bills “made very little law, but they have made millions of highly motivated friends,” Ernest Furgurson observes in Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms.
Likewise, despite his fruitless campaign to repeal “every blessed word of Obamacare” while ranking 94th in Senate seniority, Cruz almost single-handedly shut down the federal government in 2013. This and other similarly pointless calls, like trying to abolish the IRS, alienated some colleagues but delighted the GOP base.
3. Purifying the Party
Some of Cruz’s zanier appeals, like his recent proposal to allow unlimited campaign contributions, also aim to put fellow Republicans in the hot seat. Helms shared Cruz’s desire to purge the party of moderates and fill any leadership vacuum with his own brand of uncompromising social conservatism. “I’m nobody’s Republican or anything else,” Helms famously said after Richard Nixon was elected. In the same way that Cruz has labeled moderates “squishes,” and proclaimed that the GOP has not stood “for the principles we’re supposed to believe in,” Helms denounced colleagues who compromised with Bill Clinton in the 1990s as “Judases.”
4. Rewinding the Clock on Social Issues
Part of standing for principles also means sometimes trying to reverse the tide of recent history, or at least hold it back. Nowhere is this more apparent for both men than in the area of civil rights. In addition to opposing the MLK holiday, Helms decried the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced.” He was even more outspoken on the issue of gay rights, labeling homosexuals “weak, morally sick wretches.” A devout Southern Baptist like Helms, Cruz may be less incendiary in his rhetoric, but he has continued Helms’ crusade to undo provisions of the Voting Rights Act and halt the civil rights afforded to gay Americans, complaining that same-sex marriage jeopardizes the “future of our country.”
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There are other issues the two men would have agreed on, like limited government and abortion, as well as areas where they would’ve disagreed. On foreign policy, for example, Cruz is further toward the isolationist end of the spectrum than was Helms, who supported arming the Contras and expanding NATO.
And had they been in the Senate together, it’s difficult to say whether the two men would have liked one another. Cruz, of Cuban descent, might not have appreciated Helms’ statement that “all Latins are volatile people.” Likewise, Helms, a college dropout, might not have understood Cruz’s aversion as a law student to studying with anyone who had not attended Harvard, Princeton or Yale as an undergrad. But if politics makes for strange bedfellows, then the like-minded Cruz and Helms would’ve undoubtedly found themselves sharing a bed.