Who is the face of American liberalism? Who is the face of American conservatism?
In Washington politics and on social media these days, the king and queen of "base" politics are two freshman U.S senators — Texas' Ted Cruz for conservatives and Massachusetts' Elizabeth Warren for liberals.
The fast rise of these two politicians, both less than one year into their respective terms, is directly tied to the nation's harsh liberal-conservative divide. Studies show political polarization in Congress is now the highest since Reconstruction. And the split between Republicans and Democrats over President Barack Obama's job approval in Gallup surveys is the most polarized of any president in the history of their polling.
The passion Mr. Cruz and Ms. Warren inspire in their base constituencies also explains why it is so difficult to get anything done in Congress. They have no incentive to compromise in the name of reliable, moderate governance. In fact, they can be contemptuous of more senior Republicans and Democrats who work with the other side.
Mr. Cruz has called his GOP colleagues "squishes" for their inclination to make political deals. Recently, he openly criticized Sen. John McCain for backing a House-Senate conference on the budget. "The senior senator of Arizona urged senators to trust House Republicans … and frankly, I don't trust Republicans. It's the leadership of both parties that got us in this mess. … A lot of Republicans were complicit in this spending spree."
Meanwhile, Ms. Warren's antagonism toward Wall Street has made her a critic of fellow Democrats, including former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Senate leadership.
Despite the political gulf separating them, Ms. Warren and Mr. Cruz share a worldview rooted in populism — a David vs. Goliath struggle between grassroots activists and the political elite.
Ms. Warren's reviled elite is the wealthiest "1 percent" of Americans, made famous by the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011. She views with contempt the financial institutions she says work for the rich at the expense of the middle class. She complains that "too big to fail" has become "too big to jail."
Mr. Cruz's disgust is aimed at liberal elites and some Republicans. He excoriates them for supporting a large, intrusive government that threatens to infringe on the people's constitutional rights and what he calls "God-given freedoms."
"We're here because we're not willing to give up on America," Mr. Cruz told the Conservative Political Action Conference in March. "We are facing a fundamental choice … on guns, do we surrender or do we stand up now? ... on spending, do we surrender or do we stand up now? ... on the Constitution, do we surrender or do we stand up now?"
Recently, Ms. Warren introduced her first piece of legislation. It gives qualified federal student loan borrowers the same 0.75 percent interest rate that big banks got under the 2008 bailouts. Ms. Warren launched an online petition in support of her bill. It was a spectacular success, attracting over a quarter-million signatures in three days. A YouTube video of Ms. Warren speaking about the bill on the Senate floor attracted over 100,000 views.
Her populist appeal is evident when she vilifies the GOP's efforts to limit government "red tape" and regulations. She gave no credit to GOP concerns about anti-business attitudes in their blocking confirmation of a new head for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She said the GOP's aim is simply "keeping the game rigged so that consumers remain in the dark — and a few bad actors can rake in the profits."
Mr. Cruz is also known for aggressive politics, specifically his "No" votes on legislation and nominees. He voted against confirming former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state. He voted against federal aid for Northeastern states hit by Hurricane Sandy. He voted to cut off military support for Egypt and against the Violence Against Women Act. Without any evidence, he maligned former Sen. Chuck Hagel, suggesting during hearings on Mr. Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense that Mr. Hagel may have taken money from North Korea's communist government. His weak defense for that libel was that he has a right to ask for financial disclosure.
Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator who now heads the Heritage Foundation, told The Washington Post that after just a few months in the Senate, Mr. Cruz is among "the strongest Republicans in the country right now. … They're hungry for someone who's not afraid, willing to stand up and … change the status quo."
While Mr. Cruz is fast becoming a fixture on cable news and conservative talk radio, Ms. Warren has largely stayed out of the national media spotlight since being elected.
But when Ms. Warren does interviews, she unloads on the right and the tea party: "It is all or nothing politics at its worst." When a Mother Jones magazine interviewer asked Ms. Warren about Mr. Cruz's pledge to shake up the Senate, she one-upped him: "I'm not here to shake. I'm here to get something done … to strengthen middle-class families. If I could find a way to do that here and never say another word publicly, I'm all for it."
Meanwhile, Mr. Cruz's attacking style is attracting raves on conservative talk radio and even from James Carville, a leading Democratic strategist: "I think he is the most talented and fearless Republican politician I've seen in the last 30 years," Mr. Carville said.
To their supporters, both senators are acting on principle and practicing politics out of a belief that they have the right ideas to help America. Still, if Mr. Cruz and Ms. Warren are the future, then American politics is headed for even more extreme polarization and more dysfunction. And Congress is in line for even lower public approval ratings.
Juan Williams is a political analyst for Fox News and a columnist for the Hill. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun