WASHINGTON – In an address to a national firefighters union on Tuesday morning, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz aimed to meld his conservative pitch to a not-entirely-friendly crowd near Capitol Hill.
He spoke to the International Association of Fire Fighters, an organization that has endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate in every contest in recent memory. It was an opportunity for Cruz, a polarizing national figure, to show how he might expand his following beyond a passionate conservative base in a general election campaign.
The effort mostly fell flat.
Cruz made an earnest attempt to win over the first responders, but the one-liners that brought him roars at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference were largely greeted with polite silence.
One comment he repeated from his CPAC speech, directed at former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, rubbed the crowd the wrong way.
“The Obama/Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind, it doesn’t work,” Cruz said. “By the way, I understand Secretary Clinton chose not to join us.”
“If only you could have found a foreign nation to foot the bill,” he added.
Cruz’s shot elicited audible grumbling and fidgeting in the audience from the several hundred firefighters in attendance.
The comment alluded to a Washington Post report showing that the Clinton Global Foundation, her family’s charity organization, accepted donations from foreign countries while Clinton still served at the State Department.
Clinton declined to attend the firefighters event in order to deliver a speech on women's rights to the United Nations.
As is often his habit, Cruz invoked former President Ronald Reagan in his remarks.
After a lengthy comparison of President Obama to former President Jimmy Carter, Cruz argued that those in the audience fit the mold of the “Reagan Democrat,” union-member Democrats who crossed party lines in the 1980s to vote for Reagan.
“I want to note that there a lot of those men and women here in this room. … Millions of people became Reagan Democrats,” he said. “They’d been FDR Democrats for a generation.”
“And yet in 1980, millions of union members across the country, working men and women, when they went in to vote, they said, ‘You know what, those are my values, that’s what I believe,’” Cruz added.
Beyond style, Cruz weaved in praise for the firefighting profession and sought to make his policy positions relatable to their own lives.
He argued that the Obama administration’s foreign policy positions could directly hurt the first responders.
Cruz called for “real leadership in Washington” to “stand up and defend this country, to acknowledge radical Islamic terrorism for what it is and to defeat ISIS and stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
If not, he argued in a reference to 9/11, the consequences could be dire for firefighters.
“We are risking yet another horrible tragedy here at home that could well entail men and women in this room once again running into a scene of heartbreaking devastation that could have and should have been prevented,” he said.
He further argued that his economic policies would expand local tax revenues and help secure firefighter salaries.
And he said the president’s 2010 health care law misled Americans carrying the sort of high-end health insurance plans that union members often use.
Cruz was one of many Republican and Democratic presidential contenders to speak to the firefighters group over the last two days.