The Ted Cruz conundrum

US Senator Ted Cruz (R), R-Texas, speaks as Senator Mike Lee (C), R-Utah, looks on during a press conference on defunding 'Obamacare' on the Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 13, 2013.

This post originally appeared on Slate.

Sen. Ted Cruz doesn't have as many friends as he says he does. In the latest round of Cruz's simmering debate with Sen. John McCain (who labeled Cruz a "wacko bird"), Cruz spoke of "my friend, the senior senator from Arizona" while painting him as out of touch with his party and country. It usually takes a while for senators to learn how to weaponize compliments and imprecations of friendship, but Cruz is a quick study. After a patient attack on McCain's understanding of history, Cruz said: "I know my friend from Arizona is well aware of that because he is such an esteemed historian of this body." Like use of the word "frankly," which in Washington means just the opposite, Cruz's sentence is best read in reverse: McCain is neither a friend, esteemed, nor a historian. (He is still, however, from Arizona.)

Do you need friends in the Senate anymore? Ted Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah are testing this theory in new ways. The power of Tea Party activists in Republican politics, the public's low esteem for Congress, and structural changes in the Senate like the elimination of earmarks and the weakening of appropriations power have created more incentives for senators to get by without a little help from their friends.

Cruz has had a series of run-ins with his colleagues since being sworn in only four months ago. He battled Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein over gun control, his Senate Republican colleagues over a threat to filibuster gun legislation; and most recently he tangled with McCain and Republican Sen. Susan Collins over budget procedure. He wears the dustups as a badge of honor. "Count me a proud wacko bird," he told an approving audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, referring to McCain's jab.

There was a time when a new senator could not have survived such a controversial start. "The making of a good senator is in some ways similar to the making of a good work of art," William White wrote in 1956 in Citadel: The Story of the U.S. Senate. "There are few shortcuts." Lyndon Johnson gave a copy of the book to freshman senators. It advised that a career rested "upon what is slowly developing and enduring ... rather than what is quick and spectacular. Eminence may be reached by a concentration on frenetic and untypical senatorial activity, but it will never be sustained in that way."

Ted Cruz didn't read that book, and even if he did, he's decided to write his own. Though his colleagues have suggested he tone down his hard charging approach, he continues to engage with verve on multiple fronts.

White's description of the Senate described the institution before an ambitious John F. Kennedy vaulted to the presidency after serving only one term, beating out Senate lion Lyndon Johnson and other Senate veterans for his party's nomination. A politician no longer had to build up a Senate career to make a national name. Sen. Barack Obama marked the final evolution of this theory. Sen. Ted Kennedy advised him to run soon lest he get too weighed down with associations to the Senate. Now Sens. Marco Rubio, Paul, and Cruz see the Senate cloak room as the waiting room to the Oval Office.

Cruz's constituents at home like his brand of truth telling. They sent him to Washington to ruffle feathers. He is seen as a patriot fighting for the right cause. Fans delight in his rhetorical flourishes, like his recent comparison of Senate debate to the argument among warring factions in Gulliver's Travels over which end of the boiled egg to crack first before eating.

To join a club and immediately use it as a foil is seen as bad manners by Senate veterans. To portray your colleagues as sniveling weasels is seen as bad form. And, as one longtime Senate aide pointed out, it's also probably worth pausing before telling John McCain you're the one fighting for liberty when McCain actually did.