Sen. Ted Cruz exhorted the party faithful at Iowa’s Reagan Dinner Friday to join a grassroots insurgency against the Washington establishment, in a speech at an event that was part fundraiser and part tea party rally.
Cruz (R-Texas), who has achieved newfound fame since the government shutdown, delivered a stemwinder in which he blamed Senate Republicans for not holding the line against Democrats over defunding Obamacare, bashed the Washington consulting class, Obamacare and the media, and called on attendees to join the movement by signing up for his email list.
“I’m convinced we’re facing a new paradigm in politics,” Cruz, who spoke for 45 minutes without notes or a teleprompter, told the crowd of about 600 people at the Iowa Events Center. “It is the rise of the grass roots … it has official Washington absolutely terrified.”
“This new paradigm has been beta-tested, unlike the Obamacare website,” Cruz said to applause. “It was beta-tested in 1980 with the Reagan Revolution and it pulled this country back form the brink.”
The senator and potential 2016 contender defended his futile battle to defund Obamacare — which led to the two-week-plus government shutdown and damaged the GOP’s already suffering national image — that some in his party’s congressional leadership have since called a tactical blunder.
“One of the things we accomplished in the fight over Obamacare is we elevated the national debate over what a disaster, what a train wreck, how much Obamacare is hurting millions of Americans across this country,” Cruz insisted to the crowd.
House Republicans were “a profile in courage [who] stood strong and listened to the American people,” Cruz said, adding that Democrats who voted to give themselves what he called a special exemption on Obamacare would see that move come back to haunt them in ads in the 2014 midterm.
“We didn’t accomplish our ultimate policy goal in this battle and we didn’t because unfortunately a significant number of senate Republicans chose not to unite and stand side by side with House Republicans,” he said. “Had we stood together I’m.convinced the outcome of this fight could have been be very” different.
Cruz insisted he was undeterred, although he didn’t offer a specific alternative to reporters who pressed him after the speech.
“We all understood it was going to be an ongoing effort,” he told the crowd. “In time the [United States] Senate will listen as well to the American people.”
In a reference to the NSA spying scandal, Cruz said, “For anyone who has your cell phones here please them on – I want to make sure President Obama hears everything we say.”
And he saved some of his toughest criticism for the New York Times. “They will tell you this battle accomplished nothing,” Cruz said of the newspaper. “Collectively, we accomplished a great deal. “
In speech after speech, Republican party officials as well as Cruz’s colleague, Sen. Chuck Grassley, rattled sabers and urged the grass roots to stand strong. One official, Christian conservative activist and national committeeman Steve Scheffler, delivered the prayer before the dinner was served, saying Republicans need more officials willing to “basically be crucified” for their beliefs and to take “arrows [to the back] of the head.”
It stood in stark contrast to a speech just before Cruz, delivered by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who called for party unity and invoked Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment, that Republicans should not criticize one another.
Indeed, this single event – it was the annual fall Reagan Dinner, which the party uses as a showcase of top talent in order to sell tickets – felt very much like a series of different rallies.
Cruz, wearing a body mic, walked back and forth across the dais like a pastor delivering a sermon, similar to how he addressed the crowd at the Value Voters Summit in Washington a few weeks ago. Cruz received a good response from the crowd, but he wasn’t cheered wildly. And his speech, lengthy and meandering, began to lose some of the people in the audience as it went on.
“If you took every Washington strategist and dumped them in the ocean, you know what you’d call it?” he asked, recasting an old joke about lawyers. “A good start.”
He laced into President Barack Obama, saying he had violated almost every amendment that exists in the Constitution.
“Soon they may start ordering soldiers in people’s houses,” he said to a few laughs.
He asked the crowd if they’d watched comedian Jon Stewart interview Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – “He ripped her apart!” Cruz said of the “liberal comedian,” which the senator said was clear evidence of how awful Obamacare is. And he cited other examples in which the conservative base had helped force the hand of Washington leaders.
They included the vote on a gun-control package after the Newtown shootings last year, the change in approach Obama took toward military action in Syria, and immigration reform.
“When it came time for a vote [on gun control] every single proposal of the president’s that would have undermined the Second Amendment was voted down,” he said. “That was the power of the grass roots.”
The raw anger at Obama among the GOP base, which has raged since the fight over Obamacare, remained palpable.
In his own remarks, Grassley struck a similar theme, saying Obama had used the possibility of a debt default as a “scapegoat” for his own refusal to negotiate.
“We’re not going to let the president of the United States destroy that concept of America,” Grassley said. “America is an idea and you and I have to keep that idea alive.”
Branstad, who’s dealing with a fractured Iowa GOP as he heads into his own reelection effort in 2014, sounded a more soothing note.
“We as conservatives know that it’s going to take all of us working together and fighting the liberal Democrats who control the national’s capital … and the D.C. media that’s attempting to divide us,” Branstad said to polite applause. “I want to do all I can to bring all Republicans together.”
He cited Reagan’s rule of speaking “no ill of other Republicans. We need to be united as a party.” Branstad ticked off a list of governors who he felt have been effective on the Republican side — in contrast to Democratic governors who are now “in prison” — praising John Kasich, Rick Snyder, Rick Perry and Scott Walker. He noticeably omitted the governor coming up for reelection in 11 days, Chris Christie, which he later said was simply because he’d spoken at length and couldn’t name everyone.
Branstad also insisted after the dinner that he didn’t feel Cruz had violated Reagan’s 11th Commandment. Cruz argued the same thing, saying he was not speaking ill of anyone in his comments.
It remains to be seen whether Cruz will run for president, or if he will be able to sustain the enthusiasm he’s generated among the base. Some political operatives have cautioned privately that Cruz can’t be “Palinized” as easily as Sarah Palin herself was, given his position in the Senate and his Ivy League background.
Cruz left the dinner soon after he spoke with reporters, posing for pictures and shaking hands. He was heading north, to a pheasant hunt with conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). King hosted Perry at the hunt in 2011.
But Cruz declined to get into the issue that was on the minds of reporters and attendees about why he was in Iowa for his third visit that year.
“Are you planting the seeds for a presidential run?” a reporter called out.