How Ted Cruz, the US Tea Party’s Darth Vader, is preparing for a tilt at the presidency

The end of American empire has presented difficult questions about what might come in its place – even for those who found the George W Bush “freedom agenda” so difficult to stomach.

The latest revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) may still be reverberating in Europe and South America, but the impact here in the United States has been muted. If anything, the Obama administration is taking more heat for its technological incompetence than its Orwellian overreach. The dominant story in the media is that the website set up to allow Americans to enrol for health care under the Affordable Care Act is in meltdown, putting the Department of Health and Human Services under severe strain and prompting the president to order a “tech surge” to solve the problem.

It is hard to find much sincere outrage at the activities of the NSA – except from the libertarian right, whose main concern is homeland surveillance, in any case.

The reason why the NSA has been allowed to grow so large is that it gives the US a significant advantage in a world in which the cybersphere is becoming ever more important. To restrict its activities to terrorist threats would be to cede the field to nations that are prepared to use this space for a range of equally nefarious activities, including industrial-scale theft of intellectual property. China is already reported to have stolen from the Pentagon the blueprints for the US’s much-prized F-35 fighter jets.

At the heart of this scandal is a deeper truth – which is that the US is operating within a narrower conception of its core national interests than at any time since the cold war. President Obama’s arrival in office was perceived in the rest of the west as an era of rapprochement and multilateralism. While he has eschewed the adventurism of his predecessor, it is hard to make the case that he has been any less unscrupulous. He is certainly not any more engaged. A recent story in the New York Times described how he sat through discussions of Syria policy in the summer, chewing gum and scrolling through his BlackBerry.

This is not to say that Obama’s idealism was a mirage. But it is clearer than ever that his priorities are domestic and that he has a bold agenda fundamentally to change the role of government in American society.

This is far from unpopular with the US electorate. The National Interest magazine, enjoying something of a renaissance, leads with a story about the return to the primacy of the nation state, “surpassing in significance all the recent preoccupations over civilisational clash, globalisation, history’s end and great-power polarity”. In the same spirit, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, has just completed a review of US policy in the Middle East addressing the question of “core American interests”. “‘We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is,” she has said, signalling a much more hard-headed approach in which American commitments are to be scaled down further. The support for democratic reform in Egypt, once seen as a cornerstone of US strategy, has been dropped, emphatically.

The end of American empire has presented difficult questions about what might come in its place – even for those who found the George W Bush “freedom agenda” so difficult to stomach. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been grumbling about the failure of US leadership in Syria and about the vacillation of policy during the summer, which Riyadh believes is playing into the hands of Iran. The Saudi view is that the deal to dispense with Assad’s chemical weapons has taken the diplomatic pressure off him in the civil war. The Saudi decision to turn down a seat on the UN Security Council was intended as a sign of discontent directed at Washington.

Saudi Arabia is not the only ally to feel a little stung by the new realpolitik rationale in DC. After Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, raised the issue of the ongoing drone campaign at a meeting with Barack Obama late last month, documents were leaked to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post proving that senior Pakistani officials co-operate closely with the CIA on its drone programme. This may be the worst-kept secret of US-Pakistani relations. But it defies the logic put forward in a book doing the rounds in DC – One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare by Linda Robinson of the Rand Corporation – which suggests that “partnering” is the critical element of the new American approach to war.

GOP fallout

The Republican Party, meanwhile, continues its internal feud over the strategy that led to the US government shutdown last month.

As much as anything, the battle between the GOP and the Tea Party was about tone and tactics. On the substantive policy issues involved – opposition to the Affordable Care Act and belief in the need to cut government spending – they were fundamentally on the same page. The same can’t be said of the looming issue of immigration reform, shortly to appear on the legislative agenda. It represents the single greatest threat to party unity.

Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party hero who came to national prominence during the shutdown, continues to court the spotlight. Over the course of his 21-hour filibuster speech against “Obamacare”, the maverick Princeton-educated Texan imitated Darth Vader and read from Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. He spent last weekend drumming up support in the bellwether state of Iowa. That’s a sure sign he is preparing a run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Ted Cruz speaks about immigration in Washington, DC. Image: Getty

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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