U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is conjuring a new foil for his congressional forays and presidential bid, railing against a "Washington cartel" brimming with corruption, cronyism and far less virtuous Republicans.
It's a new front in his populist war of words against Washington, D.C., and it comes on the heels of his high-profile reversal on a trade deal — one that sparked criticism from the right, an unusual scenario for Texas' Tea Party darling. With a defiant speech Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has long sided with Cruz, the senator officially debuted the broad, bipartisan swipe at the culture of the nation's capital.
"Lobbyists and career politicians today make up what I call the Washington cartel," Cruz explained. "And it operates very much like other cartels. It operates like OPEC. I don't know, like sheiks, if they actually wear robes, but they nonetheless are conspiring on a daily basis against the American people."
Cruz directed the criticism on his own party, referencing — but not calling out by name — House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both Republicans, as complicit in the conspiracy.
"Those who don't oblige — they are shunned by the cartel, effectively locked out," Cruz added, referring to two cases of GOP lawmakers reportedly facing retribution from Boehner for recent votes. "Why is it that Republican leadership always, always, always cuts deals with the Democrats and with Washington and throws overboard the conservatives that, come October and November in an election year, they are desperately asking to turn out and elect them to power?"
Cruz aired a list of grievances including the Export-Import Bank, which many Republicans of Cruz's ideological stripe see as corporate welfare, as well as sugar subsidies and the internet sales tax. In each case, he argued, a perfect storm of corporations, lobbyists and their congressional enablers is leaving everyday citizens voiceless in Washington.
"Big government benefits big business," Cruz said. "Small government benefits small business and hard-working men and women."
The speech largely focused on Cruz's congressional efforts, though it was loaded with overtones for his 2016 campaign. To that end, he was most vocal about his opposition to energy subsidies, which he did not shy away from at an agriculture forum earlier this year in early-voting Iowa, where the Renewable Fuel Standard, an ethanol mandate, is popular and considered an important part of the state's farm economy.
"Every single candidate but one pledged his support for continuing the Iowa ethanol mandate. It’s very easy for conservative politicians to talk about ending cronyism, but when you’re standing in front of people who are the beneficiaries, that’s when you separate talk from action," Cruz said. He again brought up the episode after an audience member asked him why Americans should trust that he is not part of the so-called cartel.
The Heritage appearance came as some Cruz supporters were looking for a fresh reminder of his anti-Washington street cred. He had recently taken some heat for his onetime support for giving President Obama negotiating power known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a move some conservatives view as ceding too much power to Obama.
Cruz's office advertised the speech the same morning he announced that he no longer backed TPA, which Obama needs to finalize a massive trade deal with 11 other countries. In an op-ed published Tuesday on the conservative website Breitbart, which has derisively deemed the deal "Obamatrade," Cruz rolled out the term "Washington cartel" while blasting congressional leadership for apparently striking deals with Democrats related to the Export-Import Bank.
"Enough is enough," Cruz wrote. "I cannot vote for TPA unless McConnell and Boehner both commit publicly to allow the Ex-Im Bank to expire — and stay expired."
Cruz also objected to TPA on the basis that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the pending trade deal, could change federal immigration law without congressional input. U.S. trade officials have denied that possibility.
Despite Cruz's change of tune, the Senate cleared a major procedural hurdle Tuesday in its bid to give Obama the negotiating power. At Heritage, Cruz wasted no time reminding his audience that he voted Tuesday against TPA "to leadership's dismay," a point he drove home later in the day during an interview with Mark Levin, a conservative radio host and among the most vocal critics of Republicans in power in Congress.
"At the end of the day," Cruz lamented to Levin, "it was simply too much."