ARLINGTON, Va. — There’s an old cliché that if you’re looking for a friend in Washington, get a dog. That may help explain why three renegade Republican senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, briefly fled across the Potomac Wednesday night to mingle with a crowd more appreciative of their brand of politics.
Earlier this week, several hundred college-age libertarians gathered for the fifth annual Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) conference inside a ballroom at the Westin Hotel, located a safe seven miles from the Capitol building. YAL is the youth outreach group birthed from the womb of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s first run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, and it works with Paul’s other organization, the Campaign for Liberty, to continue advocating for his causes.
The young Paulites at the Westin howled when Paul, Cruz and Lee strolled onto the stage. United screams of “Run Rand Run!” — a chant that shares the cadence of another Paulian rallying cry, “End the Fed!” — rippled through the room. The trio stood on the stage for a full minute until the noise simmered. Rand Paul, who had changed out of the buttoned-up suit he wore on Capitol Hill to jeans and a blazer, sat in a chair next to Cruz and Lee looking comfortable among his flock.
“We’re not accustomed to that kind of welcome in Washington,” Lee beamed over the whoops and hollers. "There are people just a few miles from here who give us quite the opposite reception.” (He wasn’t exaggerating. A lot of Republicans find these three really annoying.)
"It seems there may be a few wacko birds in the house,” Cruz said from his perch in the middle of the stage, a reference to a term coined by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain that was not made with affection at the time.
For some of the Paulites, Cruz was somewhat of a new face. His thinking on issues dear to them — ending the Federal Reserve, taming the welfare state and embracing a noninterventionist foreign policy, to name a few — are still largely untested, although both Ron and Rand Paul endorsed him during his Senate race. The conference provided Cruz with an opportunity to prove himself as a true believer.
A few weeks ago, Cruz underwent a similar test in front of more than 600 Christian church leaders in Iowa where he passed with flying colors. Now was his chance to do the same with young libertarians.
Acting as a moderator for the discussion, YAL Executive Director Jeff Frazee wasted no time in quizzing Cruz on his ideological credentials.
“Would you support a war that was not constitutionally declared by the Congress?” Frazee asked, directing the question specifically to Cruz.
“No,” Cruz replied, pausing to let the audience applaud. “The Declaration of War is one of the most important checks and balances the Constitution gives on the power of the president."
By the end of the forum, it appeared that Cruz had found himself in the Paulites' good graces. The era of positive feelings, however, will only last as long as he’s not running against Rand Paul for president in a future election cycle. Check out what the Campaign for Liberty is already doing to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio , who earlier that day voted against a bill Paul introduced in the Senate. Oof! But for now, Cruz seems to be making a fine impression.
Paul, 50, and Cruz and Lee, both 42, are from diverse regions of the country and were elected as a direct result of the tea party movement. Paul and Lee came to the Senate in 2011, while Cruz arrived just this year.
All three believe they represent the future of the party and hold that elusive key that can help bring young people back to the GOP — a demographic that largely left the party after the Reagan era.
Part of that effort, as it has played out over the past few months, has required a bit of troublemaking, at least from the viewpoint of some of the seasoned Republicans with more mileage walking the halls of Congress.
While it is traditional in the Senate for new members, for instance, to be seen and not heard in their first few years in office, newbie lawmakers like Cruz, Paul and Lee have been anything but. All have been highly outspoken during their brief careers, and that includes issues that have separated them from some of their Republican colleagues in the chamber.
In March, Paul spent nearly 13 hours on the Senate floor to protest the president’s drone policy using old-fashioned filibuster tactics, and both Lee and Cruz joined him. (While many in the GOP leadership cheered him on, the filibuster received mixed reviews from Republicans .) Just this week, McCain — the same McCain who made the “wacko birds” remark that Cruz loves to mention so often — told The New Republic magazine that it would be a “ tough choice” for him if Paul ran against Democrat Hillary Clinton for president.
Most recently, Cruz, Lee and Paul — as well as Rubio — have been leading an effort to refuse to vote to fund the government unless the federal health care law known as Obamacare is defunded. The push is causing a bit of consternation among some of the other lawmakers who don’t want to risk being blamed for trying to shut down the government. (Because let’s face it, Republicans will be blamed if they pick that fight.) Many Republicans have warned them to drop it, and lambasted their campaign as “dumb” and “ silly.”
But Paul has a prediction about many of their naysayers: They won’t be around long. And the wacko birds will multiply.
“I think that when you look at the contrast between the old guard, it’s part of the shrinking of the Republican Party,” Paul told the audience. “They’re presiding over a dying party.”