Having spent months reckoning with these new political realities, and feeling a certain weight due to his newfound national following, Cruz has concluded that it’s time to reinvent his role in Washington. The tea-party rebel who came to the Senate in 2013, and who masterfully exploited the GOP’s fratricidal tendencies en route to building a grassroots army, no longer has the luxury of pursuing purity for political gain. With a unified Republican government, and Trump poised to secure a list of policy wins that once seemed improbable, there is little appetite or incentive for ideological brinksmanship. Cruz intuitively understands this, and sees in Trump’s early presidency an opportunity to reset relations with a party establishment he’s battled since 2012.
It’s not that he’s filled with regret. Cruz’s knack for making intra-party enemies and defying the party bosses helped fashion his image as a conservative demigod, and without that he would have never sniffed the GOP nomination. He wore the “wacko bird” label as a badge of honor and bragged about having “food tasters” in the Senate cafeteria. That same reputation, however, starved him of establishment support against Trump at a critical juncture of the campaign and contributed to the crippling narrative that he was incapable of getting anything done in Washington. (While both ran as outsiders, the popular depictions were of Trump the dealmaker and Cruz the arsonist.) Now, as he plots his future at the dawn of a onetime rival’s new administration—with his Senate reelection campaign about to commence, and another presidential bid never distant from his imagination—Cruz is betting he can have it both ways: that he can energize his base by spearheading, rather than stonewalling, the Republican Party’s agenda; and that he can protect his outsider status while playing by the insiders’ rules.
In weeks of conversations with his allies, “team player” was a phrase frequently deployed and with unambiguous purpose. Cruz has always been a partisan—it’s easy to forget he chaired Lawyers for McCain and worked for George W. Bush—and feels, perhaps, that after four years of feuding primarily with his own party there will be some absolution in inflicting punishment on the cartel members from across the aisle. When Cruz visited Trump Tower in mid-November, according to sources present, he told the transition team that with Jeff Sessions’ nomination as attorney general, the new president would need a “champion” in the Senate to lead some of his toughest fights. And then he volunteered.