As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That isn't to say that first impressions are necessarily immutable destiny in politics, since there are those who have bombed in their national debut and turned things around, and others who looked terrific at first but turned out to be something less. Bill Clinton gave a famously terrible speech at the 1988 Democratic convention, and Sarah Palin was dynamite in her speech at the GOP's 2008 gathering. Nevertheless, there are some things you just can't overcome, particularly if what caused them wasn't a bad night's sleep but the very core of your being.
A year or two ago, if you asked Republicans to list their next generation of stars Ted Cruz's name would inevitably have come up. Young (he's only 42), Latino (his father emigrated from Cuba), smart (Princeton, Harvard Law) and articulate (he was a champion debater), he looked like someone with an unlimited future. But then he got to Washington and started acting like the reincarnation of Joe McCarthy, and now, barely a month into his Senate career, we can say with a fair degree of certainty that Ted Cruz is not going to be the national superstar many predicted he'd be. If things go well, he might be the next Jim DeMint—the hard-line leader of the extremist Republicans in the Senate, someone who helps the Tea Party and aids some right-wing candidates win primaries over more mainstream Republicans. But I'm guessing that like DeMint, he won't ever write a single piece of meaningful legislation and he'll give the Republican party nothing but headaches as it struggles to look less like a party of haters and nutballs.
It's kind of remarkable how quickly things went south for Cruz. First he made a splash at Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearings by implying, without any evidence, that Hagel was on the payroll of foreign enemies. Lindsay Graham called it "out of bounds," and even grumpy John McCain, who hates Hagel's guts, rebuked him. Then on Friday, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker revealed that in 2010, Cruz made a speech in which he charged that when he was at Harvard Law School, "there were twelve [members of the faculty] who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government." This is what scholars of rhetoric call a lie. By way of explanation, his spokesperson said that what Cruz said was accurate, since there are people on the Harvard Law faculty who advocate Critical Legal Studies, which back on Planet Earth does not actually involve overthrowing the United States government. It's kind of like someone saying, "Ted Cruz advocates stoning disrespectful children to death," then saying that the statement is true, because Cruz once approvingly quoted the biblically-derived saying "spare the rod, spoil the child." (For the record, I have no idea if Cruz approves of corporal punishment, nor if he has actually participated in any child-stonings.)
So the idea that Ted Cruz is an up-and-comer with a bright future is pretty much dead, replaced by the idea that Ted Cruz is an ideological extremist who employs some of the most shameful political tactics you can imagine, including just making stuff up about people he doesn't like. Maybe this was inevitable, since by all accounts he really is kind of a jerk, and really does have some crazy ideas. He may end up a favorite of right-wing talk radio, and a hero to Tea Partiers, but he's not going to be a real power in Washington.