Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette
(CNN) -- In the 1980 Clint Eastwood action comedy film "Any Which Way You Can," prizefighter Jack Wilson (played by William Smith) assesses the strengths of his soon-to-be opponent, Philo Beddoe (played by Eastwood).
"You're fast, and you like pain," he says. "You eat it like candy. I've seen a few cases like that in my time. The more they get hurt, the more dangerous they become."
That scene comes to mind whenever someone asks me what they should make of Ted Cruz. Who is he? And what's he up to?
They put those questions to me because I've known Ted for a dozen years, since he was an anonymous lawyer toiling in the bureaucracy of the Federal Trade Commission. And -- despite what may be the most tumultuous and colorful 10 months for a freshman legislator in the history of the U.S. Senate -- I'm proud to call him a friend.
For some of my readers, this seems an odd confession. After all, we're talking about the most hated politician in America. Keep in mind that much of the hate being directed at the junior senator from Texas is coming from other politicians.
In fact, recently, an adviser to Sen. John McCain told GQ magazine that the Arizona Republican "f***ing hates Cruz."
Republicans don't like the 42-year-old because he makes them look bad and they can't control him. Democrats don't like him because his jabs sting and he won't back down. Cruz doesn't seem to be losing any sleep. The more he gets attacked, the stronger he'll become -- and the more determined.
It's not just because he'll get more popular with folks at the grass roots. That's a given. For those who are convinced that Washington is broken and that corrupt lawmakers are serve their own interests while fooling constituents into thinking they're serving them, Cruz is a refreshing break from the ordinary.
It's the way Cruz is wired. Before entering the Senate, he argued for a living and was good enough at it to make a handsome living while building a reputation as one of the best constitutional lawyers. Harvard Law School Alan Dershowitz, no conservative, told the Washington Post that Cruz was "off-the-charts brilliant."
Cruz has been named by American Lawyer magazine as one of the 50 Best Litigators under 45 in America in the country. In his 30s, he argued nine cases before the Supreme Court and won several of them. Whenever he is challenged, his energy level goes up, his backbone stiffens, and his wits sharpen. From that point, it's game on.
Cruz doesn't care about being popular or part of the in-crowd. He's comfortable with conflict, and sometimes he even seems like a glutton for punishment. He can't be intimidated or scared off. He doesn't care if other senators isolate him, ignore him or attack him. He doesn't care if they let him into their club. So they have no power over him.
Not that his fellow senators haven't tried, unsuccessfully, to beat him into submission. They gave it a go last week at a closed-door lunch meeting in the Senate's Mansfield Room. According to senators who attended the meeting, and who spoke anonymously to Politico and The New York Times, one Republican senator after another berated Cruz for -- as they saw it -- causing the government shutdown without a plan to end it.
At one point, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire -- who is one of the GOP senators targeted for defeat by the Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group that aims to punish those who did not fight the good fight against Obamacare -- asked the Texas senator whether he would publicly renounce the attacks.
Cruz's response, according to someone who was in the room, was short and sweet. "I will not," he said.
That's typical Ted. As he sees it, this is his colleagues' problem, which they brought upon themselves by breaking promises and straying from principles. It's not his job to save them.
As one senator told the Times, Cruz's refusal to renounce the attacks on his colleagues "just started a lynch mob." Who knew the GOP senators still had some passion left in them, at least when re-election is at stake?
One senator who attended the meeting told Politico, "I just wish the 35 House members that have bought the snake oil that was sold could witness what was witnessed today at lunch."
Notice that the unnamed senator -- a real profile in courage -- wasn't so anxious for the proceedings to be witnessed by the scores of conservative voters outside of Washington who side with Cruz. For the GOP establishment, transparency is a concept that is best not carried too far.
That hypocrisy from Republicans sticks in my craw. I believe that the shutdown was the right thing to do and that defunding, or at least delaying, Obamacare is the necessary thing to do.
It's not ready for America, and America is not ready for it. The arguments coming from House Republicans are more persuasive than the ones coming from the White House. I believe that Obama hurt his credibility by continuing to provide members of Congress and their staffs subsidies to purchase coverage and by agreeing to a delay in the mandate to provide insurance to those employers who are not already in compliance with the law.
This is a spectacle that resembles employees who work in a restaurant vowing never to eat there. It's no wonder the public is skeptical. The fact that I believe all this has nothing to do with Cruz. I got here all by myself.
Besides, I don't put stock in the popular media narrative that Cruz is singlehandedly responsible for shutting down the government. That's just smoke from Democrats and the GOP establishment.
Scores of Republican lawmakers raised money by promising to repeal Obamacare. And then as soon as they got to Washington, they settled into their offices and didn't lift a finger to defund the program. In fact, they went on the attack against the one guy who led the fight to do just that. Of course, this double talk blew up in their faces. What did they expect? Congress is broken, but it was that way long before Cruz got there.
My friend draws his staying power from the belief that he's right. As unpopular as he is within the Beltway, he is keenly aware that -- in the heartland and across the country -- his stance in defiance of Obamacare, and his willingness to rock the political boat, have transformed him into a rock star. He has lost the support of many, if not all, his Senate colleagues. But, judging from what you hear on talk radio and right-wing blogs, he is winning the loyalty and respect of many average Americans. And, in politics, that can carry you far.
Ted Cruz will continue to be attacked. And like a fictional prizefighter, the more that others try to hurt him, the more dangerous he'll become.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.