Whenever a new class arrives in Congress, and to the Senate in particular, official Washington resembles a John Hughes film: The self-serious elders rush to judge whether the incoming freshmen live up to the reputations that precede them. This well-established tradition seems more intensive than usual this year with the arrival of two high-profile members, Texas' Ted Cruz and Massachusetts' Elizabeth Warren. Might that be because the Senate has so little else to do with itself? After all, it hasn't actually passed a major piece of legislation in 952 days, and recently decided against the one reform that might've returned some semblance of usefulness to the chamber.
Whatever the reason, Cruz's colleagues blanched so noticeably at his aggressive questioning of defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel that it made the front page of the New York Times—Cruz's Democratic counterparts compared him to Joe McCarthy, and even a few Republicans made on-the-record clucks of disapproval. Warren, meanwhile, seems to have everyone confused. First, the town's official chroniclers were reporting that she was dutifully following in the footsteps of other celebrity Democrats to arrive in the Senate, such as Hillary Clinton and Al Franken, by keeping her head down and paying her dues. But then Warren made some hearing-room-noise of her own with tart questions for regulators who, she thought, were being far too meek in taking the big banks to court. This scrambled the established stereotypes. As others have noted, Washington of late has had a double standard on high-profile arrivals, expecting Democrats to be respectful, diligent understudies and Republicans to be inexperienced, bumptious china-breakers.
In fact, both Cruz and Warren are defying those stereotypes in different ways. How are they behaving? Not in accordance with pre-formed molds, but rather exactly as the Washington establishment should have expected them to—if it had bothered to pay attention to the senators' careers.
Start with Cruz. As he has had to remind people this week, he made it abundantly clear during his primary challenge of the establishment candidate that he had no intention of conforming to the capital's customs. "This is all a lot of bed-wetting," said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas political consultant who supported Cruz but did not work on his campaign. "He's been delivering on how he promised to serve. One of the things I was always struck by was all the times when I saw him campaign, how often he told people 'hold me accountable.' A lot of people run as conservatives in primaries and for four years do want they want. No one wants to be held accountable. He was begging for it." If anything, Mackowiak said, the finger-wagging Cruz has received for his Hagel encounter is proof that he's doing things right: "People in Washington think that just because you're a senator, you care about the next Ruth Marcus column. There's virtually nothing he's done in office so far that he would've done differently." The one possible exception was Cruz's question on whether Hagel had received payments from foreign countries: Naming North Korea as an example of a country that might have been paying Hagel in the absence of evidence to the contrary was clearly meant rhetorically, Mackowiak said, but was a mistake because it was so "implausible" that it "gave his opponents something to use against him."
Washington may also be erring, though, in casting Cruz's aggressive entrance as typical Tea Party–style uncouthness, the Republican equivalent of the backwoods hordes that Andrew Jackson brought with him to the White House. Several of the other notable senators elected with Tea Party support have made perfectly decorous debuts—take Marco Rubio, for instance. And this stereotype misses what is surely behind much of the ruffled feathers over Cruz. What's so presumptuous about him is not that he's being rough and uncouth, but precisely the opposite: that he is showing himself so smooth and self-confident in a role that he has occupied for only a matter of weeks. What's striking about the clip of his grilling Hagel, beyond its echoes of McCarthy, is the fluency and assurance of his delivery and bearing—his eyes narrowed, his mouth taut, his questions loaded with senatorial gravity ("I would suggest…" "…highly troubling…"). This should not be surprising, as Cruz was a college debate champion, a Supreme Court clerk, and a state solicitor general. He was more than ready for the Senate; but people in Washington weren't ready for his readiness. "He's a rookie, but he's able to play the game at a very high level and that's a big part of why people are beginning to attack him," said Mackowiak. "It's unusual to see a freshman as assertive as he is. He is polished and confident and substantive and intelligent… This is an unusually talented person and I think what this is about … is that there are a lot of people appalled that he's self-confident as a freshman. There's jealousy and envy."
Then we have Warren, whose debut should also surprise nobody. Hill reporters immediately took her avoidance of them as a clear sign that she was following the Hillary model of inconspicuous time-serving. But they should have known better. Warren could not have signaled more strongly during her Senate run that she did not place much stock in Clinton as a model. She told New York magazine early in her campaign: "If the notion on this is we're going to elect somebody to the United States Senate so they can be the 100th least senior person in there and be polite, and somewhere in their fourth or fifth year do some bipartisan bill that nobody cares about, don't vote for me." When I was watching her campaign in Boston in midsummer, she took another unsubtle shot at Clinton, recounting for a large audience at the Kennedy Library her dismay when Clinton, as senator, voted for a bankruptcy-reform bill sought by the credit card companies—even after having been counseled against it by Warren in a personal briefing. This, Warren said, was precisely not the kind of buckling-under she would allow of herself in Washington: "I haven't had to trim my sails one bit, for one nickel." (We may have to wait to see how she votes on preserving the medical device tax before deciding whether she's held true to that.)
As for her low media profile since arriving in Washington, this was also in line with past behavior. The notion of Warren as a media superstar during her 2009-2011 period in Washington monitoring the TARP bailouts and designing the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is based on a couple of very high-profile appearances. For most of the time, Warren was just giving monthly briefings on her regulatory efforts—no daily MSNBC hits for her. To hear her allies tell it, that's because she was then, and remains now, above all a consumer advocate who will work the issues behind the scenes, then take her shots when they can have an impact. "She's spent a lot of time fighting for economic policies that will help families, and she's willing to use her voice when it can be helpful," said an aide.
With this backdrop, there should have been fewer gasps when Warren got sharp with regulators at her first hearing with the Senate Banking Committee. "Anybody?" she demanded, when none of the regulators answered her question about whether their agencies had actually taken any banks to court. "I want to note that there are district attorneys and U.S. attorneys who are out there everyday squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds and taking them to trial to 'make an example,' as they put it," she said. "I am really concerned that too-big-to-fail has become too-big-for-trial."
No, it was not as aggressive as Cruz. After all, Warren was questioning regulators who were ultimately on her side of the issue, whereas Cruz was facing off against someone that he and his fellow conservatives have decided is a dangerous apostate. Where Cruz was slick and lawyerly, Warren came across as a professor impatient with the inadequate answers of her students. Which is as it should be. Cruz is a lawyer, Warren is a professor. They are being themselves. Washington should try getting to know them before a whole new crop of freshmen arrives two years from now, ready to be put into boxes.
Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the source of a Warren quote. It was New York magazine, not the New York Times Magazine.