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Associated Press
Sen. Ted Cruz’s reputation is well established four months into his first term.

Driven by foes’ derision

Attacks on Cruz focus on style, not conservative substance

Rude, entitled, arrogant and off- putting: That’s how the conventionally wise in Washington are characterizing Ted Cruz, the conservative new senator from Texas. It’s a better description of the critics themselves, who are inadvertently helping Cruz build his national fan base.

I’ll admit to being biased about Cruz, who has been a friend for almost half my life. But you don’t need to like Cruz or his politics to see how weightless some of the criticisms are.

The New York Times columnist David Brooks delivered a common critique of Cruz in a recent public appearance: “If you mention the name Ted Cruz to other senators, you just get titanic oceans of eye rolling. Because you’re a freshman, you don’t go in and take over hearings, you, like, hang around and learn how it’s done,” he said. “It doesn’t help that he has a face that looks a little like Joe McCarthy, actually. I just – I find him a little off-putting.”

So, in short: You’re trashing the fine traditions of this great and storied chamber. Plus we don’t like your face.

Dana Milbank, who showcases his snark in the Washington Post, criticized the senator for microphone-hogging bad manners in a column that started, “Is there nobody who can tell Ted Cruz to shut up?”

Maybe a quieter Cruz would have better relationships with his colleagues, who would then do more to advance his legislative goals. If so, that’s more an indictment of the culture of the Senate than of Cruz. The people of Texas didn’t vote for him because he promised to keep his head down in deference to his colleagues. No senator wins election that way. Presumably voters want senators who will be as effective as they can be in advocating for the views they campaigned on.

Of all the possible critiques of Cruz, this one – that his colleagues resent all the attention he’s getting – has the least resonance outside the Beltway. Oh wait, except for another one: He has violated Senate protocol.

Last week, the New York Times reported that in a breach of the Senate’s “rules of decorum,” Cruz had given a public gathering his account of how some closed-door conversations among unidentified Republican colleagues had gone. (He said they were “squishes.”) The paper mentioned that it had already reported on those conversations with an account less flattering to Cruz.

Maybe Cruz was indiscreet. But who really cares about these “rules of decorum”? Not the Times, which was happy to report on the off-the-record conversations, with names. And apparently not the other senators, who don’t seem to mind having their aides leak to the Times.

The conservative editors of the Wall Street Journal opinion pages have a more substantive complaint about Cruz. Although they share his opposition to most gun regulations, they thought his recent filibuster on the subject was unwise, and they fault him for treating a tactical dispute as a matter of principle. They make some reasonable points, but their focus on these questions seems weirdly disproportionate: On May 3, they devoted both an editorial and a column to them.

Cruz has staked out very conservative positions on most issues, all of which are fair game for criticism. Yet to an unusual extent his opponents resort to a kind of aesthetic disdain for him instead of taking on his positions. There isn’t much more to these criticisms than to Cher’s Twitter posts that “the smell of sulphur follows him wherever he goes.”

Most of these denunciations help Cruz: He’ll probably use Cher in an online ad someday. A lot of conservatives will rally around anyone under attack from liberals, whatever the merits. And the insubstantiality of the attacks only makes them more helpful. They let him send a message to conservatives across the country: The Beltway wants to put us in our place, and I won’t let them.

Cruz’s Beltway critics were horrified anew last week on reports that he is thinking of running for president. If the past few months are any guide, he would try to build a majority starting with the most conservative end of the Republican primary electorate, and argue that the party needs to nominate a true conservative rather than an establishment favorite.

Many Republicans have tried this strategy since President Ronald Reagan left the scene. None has succeeded. The right end of the party invariably splits its support among several candidates, and voters in the middle of the party usually prefer someone with more experience than the right’s favorites.

Maybe Cruz has a different strategy in mind, or has a reason for thinking this time will be different. If he runs, he will have at least one thing going for him: He has a knack for making his opponents lose their wits.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.