Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the conservative provocateur enjoying a reign of terror over his Republican Party, committed his latest outrage last week, saying the men and women of the U.S. military would “serve as al-Qaida’s air force” in Syria.
Most Republican lawmakers cower before the freshman senator because they are afraid to offend his tea party followers. But not Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a second-term Republican from Illinois who as an Air Force pilot served three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan and is now in the Air National Guard.
“That is a cheap line by some people to garner headlines and not a serious discussion about what is going on in Syria,” Kinzinger said at Wednesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing into President Barack Obama’s request to use force against the Syrian regime.
The next day Kinzinger told me the Cruz crack was “highly offensive” to his fellow warriors. “Look, I disagree with the president on a lot, but he’s the president of the United States and he’s made a decision which I think is important,” said Kinzinger, who supports a U.S. strike. “When it comes to foreign affairs, people shouldn’t be out there to give cheap-shot headlines. People’s lives are on the line and so is America’s reputation.”
Kinzinger’s view makes him old school, a throwback to an earlier Republican Party that respected the balance of power and believed politics stopped at the water’s edge. But Kinzinger is 35 and charismatic – just the sort of anti-Cruz the Republicans need if they are again to be a party that does more than sabotage government.
A couple of weeks before taking his Syria position, Kinzinger came out against the effort – another Cruz provocation – to shut down the government unless Obamacare is defunded. “You can’t come here and just say if we don’t get our way we’re going to burn the place down,” the young congressman told me. “If we respect the Constitution, and we do, we respect that we’re only one-third of the government and you’re not going to get your way all the time. … We’ve got to get away from being the guys that scream and yell on cable TV.”
Conventional wisdom says Kinzinger’s heresies will cause him to be knocked out by a conservative challenger in a primary. Indeed, the conservative Club for Growth lists him among 10 House Republican targets on its “primarymycongressman.com” website. Kinzinger’s response: Bring it.
“The perception is if you do one thing out of line with what is considered hard-core conservatism, or what Glenn Beck says or what Mark Levin says, then you are a RINO,” Republican in Name Only, Kinzinger said.
He thinks many colleagues agree with his positions but fear a primary – a worry he thinks is overstated. “Part of my view on my job comes from the fact that I had served in Iraq and I think every day about 18-, 19-year-old kids that have given their life for their country, so I have to be willing to give my career for the same cause,” he said. “I’m a believer, though, that no matter what you believe, what position you take, if it’s principled and you can explain it, then constituents will understand it and let you slide.”
Kinzinger’s military service gives him a deeper perspective than many of his colleagues, something he shares with earlier generations of political leaders who wore the uniform in greater numbers. Having seen real bloodshed, he’s not interested in the petty squabbles that occupy his peers. It’s probably no coincidence that of the 10 “RINOs” targeted by the Club for Growth for being insufficiently hard-line, four are veterans. Cruz did debate competitions but no military service.
Kinzinger is no RINO. Sarah Palin endorsed him in 2010. The tea party supported him. He joined the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House. He earned a 76 percent conservative rating last year from the American Conservative Union. But the tea party turned against him in 2012 when, because of redistricting, he ran against, and defeated, a far-right hero, Rep. Don Manzullo.
Kinzinger has a safe Republican seat now, and the surest way for him to keep it is to avoid a primary challenge by being reflexively conservative. For that reason, what he is doing is more principled than those colleagues who guarantee themselves re-election by slavishly voting the way they are told by the Club for Growth and other purity enforcers.
Cruz Republicans are about self-preservation. As he did in the skies over Iraq, Kinzinger is putting country before self.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.