John McCormack is a reporter in Washington.
NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—It’s 4 p.m. on Wednesday, the first day of the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference—not exactly a prime speaking slot—but a standing room-only crowd has gathered to hear from freshman Congressman Dan Crenshaw. While we wait for the 34-year-old Texan, who is running late due to a vote in the House, the first person I talk to at the back of the Eastern Shore meeting room is Jacob Foster, an 18-year-old high-school student at Gann Academy outside Boston, who is attending CPAC for the third time in his young life. Foster is something of an endangered species at the conference: a conservative who likes a lot of the policies advanced by President Donald Trump yet doesn’t intend to vote for him in 2020 because of Trump’s character. But Crenshaw gives Foster hope.
“The glaring difference is he’s not facing accusations of sexual assault, he hasn’t had three marriages, he didn’t dodge the Vietnam draft,” Foster says. “On policy issues, there are meaningful differences. On trade, he’s not as quick to use tariffs.”Story Continued Below
When Crenshaw arrives, the former Navy SEAL speaks about how to inspire “people back home” to embrace conservative values—personal responsibility, limited government, virtue, liberty—over a culture of outrage. “A society full of people who are easily enraged by every tweet they see, or some news story that comes out—so susceptible to outrage culture, so ready to be offended—it’s not a sustainable society. It’s a society at each other’s throats,” he says. Crenshaw doesn’t mention Trump once. The only politician cited by name is John Adams. The Constitution is “wholly inadequate for any other people but a moral people,” says Crenshaw, paraphrasing the Founding Father. Meanwhile, Trump fixer Michael Cohen is across the Potomac testifying to Congress.
Afterward, Foster says it was a “phenomenal” speech that “gets to the core of the more enduring part of conservatism.” But Trump fans find something to like, too. “Crenshaw is kind of like a more youthful version of Trump,” says 20-year-old Jeremiah Childs, a University of Maine student in a red MAGA cap. “He’s a more family-friendly version of Trump,” he continues, searching for the right comparison. Childs calls Trump critics Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake “dinosaurs” whose day is done in the GOP. But Crenshaw? “He’s young. He’s exciting. He has a great story. Like, Trump’s a billionaire, and he’s the soldier, you know?” Childs says. “It’s two different things that are part of the ethos of the Republican Party. And he also sort of has that pop-culture brand.”
That “pop-culture brand” is something Crenshaw attained last November, when his gracious response to “Saturday Night Live‘s” mockery of his war wound went viral. In just the few months since, he has established himself as one of his party’s most prominent communicators. As comfortable on “Face the Nation” and “Morning Joe” as he is on Fox News, Crenshaw has written op-eds for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. He might not have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s millions of Twitter followers, but his more than 500,000 total followers make him the most popular Republican House member on Twitter, where his tweets—whether he’s slamming his Democratic colleagues, speaking fluent Spanish in a video supporting the Venezuelan people or humble-bragging about his double ax-throwing skills—are frequently shared and “liked” by thousands or tens of thousands of people.
Crenshaw’s social media stardom and with his unlikely path to victory—he had no electoral experience and no money when he upset the Texas GOP establishment on his way to win the Republican nomination in his district in 2018—invites comparison to the Democrats’ most media-savvy new member, @AOC. “She always seems like she’s having a good time, and you get that same impression from Dan,” says conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, host of one of the country’s most popular political podcasts. “He’s an authentic person.”
Crenshaw might be the congressional GOP’s best answer to AOC, but he decidedly doesn’t want to be seen as a Republican version of the 29-year-old New York Democrat, who is “always trying to embrace radicalism,” he told me during a recent interview in his new office on the fourth floor of the Cannon House Office Building. He wants to take his party in a more traditional—not radical—direction. “We have to make conservatism cool and exciting again,” is how he described his mission in politics when I first met him a year ago. “We have to bring back that Reagan optimism.”
Crenshaw’s combination of traditional conservatism and rising popularity put him in an unusual position in Congress. He describes himself as a “plain old conservative”—he supports free trade, wants to reform Medicare and Social Security, and thinks American troops should stay in Afghanistan (where an IED took one of the veteran’s eyes) as long as they’re needed to prevent another 9/11. That puts him at odds with Trump, whom Crenshaw has been unafraid to criticize, going so far as to call his rhetoric “insane” and “hateful” during the 2016 presidential campaign. But Crenshaw is more “Sometimes Trump” than “Never Trump.” He is not pushing for a 2020 Republican primary challenge and is not trying to write off Trump’s wing of the party—hence, his warm reception at CPAC. In fact, Crenshaw has praised the president for his policies on immigration, even recently voting in support of Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a border wall, a move many conservatives opposed.
One type of success in today’s Republican Party involves becoming a Trump booster, like Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, a 36-year-old in his second term who unfailingly defends the president on TV. Crenshaw is showing that it’s not the only way. The mainstream conservative is the House GOP’s one rising star to emerge from the midterms, whereas true Trump nationalists like Corey Stewart, Roy Moore and Kelli Ward have met electoral defeat. Crenshaw is only two months into the job, but he might just offer the possibility that the future of the Republican Party could be more conservative than Trumpist—if he can chart his own course in Washington.
When Crenshaw first grabbed the national spotlight, he seemed to succeed, at least for one night, in his improbable mission to prove that a conservative politician could be cool.
The weekend before the 2018 midterm elections, “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson mocked Crenshaw’s physical appearance, saying the wounded veteran’s eye patch made him look like a “hitman in a porno movie.” When “SNL” invited Crenshaw on the show the next week, he agreed and, after ribbing Davidson, provided a rare moment of political unity. “Americans can forgive one another. We can remember what brings us together,” Crenshaw said, before telling viewers to “never forget the sacrifices of veterans past and present, and never forget those we lost on 9/11, heroes like Pete’s father,” a firefighter who died trying to save those trapped in the World Trade Center.
“I thought that he had a lot of maturity and gentleness in his response to it, which seems increasingly rare nowadays,” says Foster, the 18-year-old Trump critic at CPAC, who recently accepted an appointment to attend West Point. “Dan Crenshaw started the week as a punchline and ended it as a star,” the headline of a Washington Post profile declared.
By the time the “SNL” spot aired, Crenshaw had already won. But it had not been an easy road. Although he had worked in politics briefly, as a military legislative assistant for Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, he was still a relative outsider, having taken a medical retirement from the Navy in 2016 and then completed a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard. In the fall of 2017, John Noonan, a Senate aide to Tom Cotton of Arkansas, persuaded Crenshaw to run for a seat that had opened up with the retirement of Representative Ted Poe.
“We were building the plane as we were heading down the runway,” Crenshaw campaign consultant Brendan Steinhauser says of the candidate’s brief GOP primary campaign in Texas’ 2nd Congressional District, home to parts of Houston. With no money for TV ads, Crenshaw relied on digital and earned media. In February 2018, he ran 100 miles through his suburban district to draw attention to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and his own campaign. He made it to the GOP runoff by 155 votes—his margin over multi-millionaire Kathaleen Wall, a self-styled “female Trump” who spent $6 million of her own money and had the backing of Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott.
“He’s proof that personal story and charisma can overcome just about any amount of money in a primary setting,” says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “Voters just liked him.”
Congressman Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL who lost an eye in an explosion in Afghanistan, stands alongside fellow Republicans as President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address on February 5. | M. Scott Mahaskey for Politico Magazine
In the runoff, Crenshaw’s GOP opponent, state Representative Kevin Roberts, focused on a December 2015 Facebook post in which Crenshaw had blasted candidate-Trump’s proposed ban on all Muslims entering the United States. “Trump’s insane rhetoric is hateful,” Crenshaw had written. “On the one hand you have idiots like Trump, and on the other you have equally ignorant liberals.” In response, Crenshaw emphasized that he had supported Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. But he never recanted. He went on to defeat his GOP opponent 70 percent to 30 percent and won the general election by 7 points. In Harris County—part of his district that is increasingly diverse, young and wealthy—Crenshaw ran 12 percentage points ahead of Cruz.
When I asked Crenshaw recently whether he regretted the “idiot” remark or anything else he had said about Trump, he replied: “Do I regret it? I don’t know. That’s not a useful emotion. You know, you learn lessons. That’s a better way to look at life.”
Crenshaw was sworn in as a new member of Congress on January 3 in the midst of the government shutdown. The standoff wasn’t exactly conducive to producing moments of unity like his “SNL” appearance. Nor does Crenshaw seem particularly interested in forging friendships with his young, progressive counterparts. “The new face of the Democratic Party is coming out in favor of [Venezuelan dictator] Nicolás Maduro. It’s anti-Israel,” he says. “And that’s a change. That’s a new normal. These are the ones who get elevated.”
But now that he’s in Washington, Crenshaw has also continued to criticize his own—whether Congressman Steve King of Iowa (“We don’t need guys like that,” Crenshaw told me when asked whether King should leave Congress) or Donald Trump.
Two weeks before he took office, Crenshaw wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post urging the president to reverse his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from the fight against ISIS in Syria. “I have a background in this. I have experience in this,” Crenshaw told me. “I understand pretty well what the mission is and why it should continue.” Crenshaw also believes, in defiance of Trump, that Congress should take back the authority it ceded long ago to the executive branch to impose tariffs.
But Crenshaw is happy to support the president, or challenge his critics, when the two agree. “He has taken, from what I can see, the same approach that I have taken,” Ben Shapiro says of the congressman. “He’s not going to be in the business of pretending Trump is something he’s not, but he’s also not going to dump on Trump for the sake of a little bit of strange new respect from the left.”
Crenshaw, who has met with Trump once at the White House, greets talk of a potential 2020 Republican primary challenge with a rhetorical shrug. “It’s democracy, so it’s going to be what it’s going to be. Do I have any real thoughts on that and how it turns out? I don’t know,” he says. “I think it’s pretty safe to predict he’ll be our nominee, and I think that’s perfectly fine. We know what we’re getting with the president.” In addition to saying he is “proud to stand with the Trump administration” in support of the Venezuelan people, Crenshaw has been an enthusiastic advocate for Trump’s push to build a wall on the Southern border. In videos on Twitter and in TV appearances, he has made the case for a physical barrier as a common-sense security measure, and has pinned Democratic opposition to the policy on hatred of the president.
But when Trump went so far as to declare a national emergency in February in order to divert military and other funding for border-wall construction, many mainstream conservatives objected. The question was no longer simply about the policy of a border wall but whether the president was flouting the rule of law and setting a dangerous precedent that a future Democratic president could use to his or her own ends. Crenshaw seemed to find himself in a bit of a bind.
In a written statement on February 15, he expressed both hesitation and praise for the emergency declaration. “I share his frustration with the position we are in now,” Crenshaw’s statement said. “While I’m hopeful that this option will start to address the problems at our border, I remain wary of the precedent it sets. This is simply the result of Congress not doing its job.”
Crenshaw’s office declined for a week say how he would vote on a resolution rescinding the national emergency, but the congressman had an answer over the phone this past Monday. “I’ll certainly be voting in favor of the president’s policy,” he said.
Through the emergency declaration, he argues, Trump is merely appropriating additional funds to enforce the federal law prohibiting illegal border crossings. “He’s not changing any laws. He’s not changing any policies. He is simply putting more money towards his faithful execution of the law than was allowed by Congress,” Crenshaw says. He argues that a Democratic president closely following Trump’s precedent wouldn’t be so bad, as long as he or she were only putting more money toward the enforcement of existing laws.
A significant number of conservatives sharply disagree with Crenshaw’s support for the emergency declaration. “The same congressional Republicans who joined me in blasting Pres. Obama’s executive overreach now cry out for a king to usurp legislative powers,” Michigan GOP Congressman Justin Amash wrote on Twitter. “If your faithfulness to the Constitution depends on which party controls the White House, then you are not faithful to it.” When the roll was called in the House to terminate the national emergency declaration, Amash was one of just 13 Republicans to vote for it. Crenshaw was among the 182 Republicans who sided with Trump.
Crenshaw is still getting settled into his new job. He is pleased to have landed assignments on the Homeland Security and Budget committees. He has a fresh coat of navy blue paint on the sparsely decorated walls in his office. He has found a small apartment near Navy Yard and works out at the gym there (he doesn’t want to pay the fee for the members’ gym and says the group that does P90X gets up too early). His wife, Tara, sometimes travels with him to D.C., but they haven’t yet gotten into a rhythm.
Stuck in the minority, Crenshaw seems less intent on passing legislation than being an effective messenger for his party, including trying to convince younger voters that conservatism and Trump aren’t one and the same. “It’s my goal to help them see: Think what you want about him, but please focus on the policies and the general approach to governance we’re taking,” Crenshaw says. It’s a role he is carefully cultivating; none of his social media posts go up without his involvement, he told me.
“Think what you want about [Trump], but please focus on the policies and the general approach to governance we’re taking,” says Crenshaw, shown at his congressional office in Washington. | M. Scott Mahaskey for Politico Magazine
So far, Crenshaw has managed to earn praise from both Republican Trump loyalists and skeptics in Washington. Andrew Surabian, a former Trump White House official who worked under Steve Bannon, says of Crenshaw: “While he has some views that are different from the president, he has put himself in a position where he is still an ally to the administration on the whole.” Liz Mair, a NeverTrump Republican consultant, says politicians who share Crenshaw’s ideology “struggle to get traction a lot of the time because they just seem like boring, mainstream, conservative Republican dudes,” but Crenshaw “could become a much bigger player in the party if he chooses to.”
As his experience on the national emergency shows, however, it’s not easy taking a middle-ground approach to Trump. The president will surely present Crenshaw with more opportunities to alienate Trump supporters or opponents. And it remains to be seen whether Crenshaw can navigate his first two years in office without turning off voters who backed both him and Beto O’Rourke, Ted Cruz’s Democratic Senate opponent, in 2018.
But the Trump-skeptical conservatives left in the Republican Party don’t seem to have written off Crenshaw because of his support for the emergency declaration. Ben Shapiro, who supports rescinding the emergency, wrote in a text message: “There’s a legitimate difference of opinion on the issue.” At CPAC, Jacob Foster, who also opposed the emergency declaration, told me he thinks Crenshaw was representing his constituents and wouldn’t set such a “dangerous precedent” if he were president.
“I think he’s got an incredible future,” says Shapiro, who would be happy to see Crenshaw launch a presidential campaign before turning 40. “Why the hell not?” he says. “The more good people running in 2024 the better.”
Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna contributed to this report.
This article tagged under: