Why the GOP Is on Cruz Control

Despite rejection and mockery from party leaders, Texas Ted’s brazenness is apt for the times

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at a news conference with conservative Congressional Republicans who persuaded the House leadership to include defunding the Affordable Care Act in legislation to prevent a government shutdown, at the Capitol, Sept. 19, 2013.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Sept. 24, 2013, 10:29 a.m.

As he re­minds us so of­ten, Ted Cruz is really smart — smarter than the rest of us — and so it may well be that he’s pur­su­ing the smartest route to the pres­id­ency in this age of de­grin­golade. (That’s a su­per-smart term, one Cruz might use, mean­ing “the rap­id col­lapse of the old power struc­ture.”) Cruz real­izes, maybe more than the GOP lead­er­ship he is tak­ing on, that the fu­ture of the frac­tious Re­pub­lic­an Party is com­pletely in play. The House- and dis­trict-dir­ec­ted GOP base no longer cares at all what the “na­tion­al lead­ers” or strategists in Wash­ing­ton think; na­tion­al con­tenders who tra­di­tion­ally might have had to earn their way to the nom­in­a­tion a la Mitt Rom­ney or Mitch Daniels are no longer treated with much re­spect. Even Marco Ru­bio, not long ago a wun­der­kind in­sur­gent him­self, is com­ing off like a jaded Wash­ing­to­ni­an fuddy-duddy these days com­pared with the Cruz Ex­press.

For sheer brazen­ness, there is noth­ing in memory to com­pare with Ted Cruz. If Barack Obama set a new bar in the Demo­crat­ic Party by grand­stand­ing his way to the pres­id­ency after only two years in the Sen­ate — with less polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence or ac­com­plish­ment than al­most any ma­jor can­did­ate be­fore him — Cruz is out­do­ing even Obama in his flag­rant at­tempt to cre­ate a na­tion­al repu­ta­tion out of lit­er­ally noth­ing, with less than one year in of­fice. He’s Sarah Pal­in with an Ivy League ped­i­gree, and ap­par­ently even less shame.

By all ap­pear­ances, Cruz’s main ob­ject­ive is not to take on Obama and the Demo­crats (that’s just a tac­tic), but to oust the old guard in his own party — even faster than the Tea Party in­sur­gency sought to do after 2010. Ac­cord­ing to seni­or-level Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives, Cruz talks frankly of clear­ing his way for a pres­id­en­tial run, even as he de­rides, without any sense of irony, the “van­ity” of his fel­low sen­at­ors. As The Wash­ing­ton Post noted on Monday, cit­ing GOP seni­or aides and sen­at­ors, Cruz is seek­ing to “puri­fy the party.”

That is why Cruz seems not to care at all — in fact, he’s quite de­lighted, writer Jason Zengerle points out — that he pro­voked party li­on John Mc­Cain in­to call­ing him a “wacko bird” for reck­lessly smear­ing Chuck Hagel and fili­bus­ter­ing John Bren­nan. As reneg­ade con­ser­vat­ive pun­dit Dav­id Frum writes ap­prov­ingly of Cruz, “The plan is ob­vi­ous enough: to emerge as the next ac­know­ledged polit­ic­al lead­er of Amer­ic­an con­ser­vat­ism in the apostol­ic suc­ces­sion that be­gins with Robert Taft, con­tin­ued through Barry Gold­wa­ter and Ron­ald Re­agan and Jack Kemp, and has had no agreed suc­cessor since Newt Gin­grich’s re­tire­ment from Con­gress in 1998.”

This is no doubt why, in his grasp­ing at head­lines, Cruz is already sev­er­al de­grees of sep­ar­a­tion away from what most of the coun­try wants, and he seems not to care a whit. Ac­cord­ing to the latest United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, a sol­id ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans think the ap­proach that the House and Sen­ate GOP lead­er­ship is now pur­su­ing is too rad­ic­al: They don’t wish the debt-lim­it is­sue to be tied to le­gis­la­tion that might delay or de­fund Obama­care. Yet Cruz is go­ing even bey­ond that lead­er­ship strategy in say­ing he will fili­buster his party’s own House bill in a quix­ot­ic ef­fort to pre­vent Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id from strip­ping the Obama­care-de­fund­ing pro­vi­sion from the bill after a clo­ture vote. This will en­sure Cruz head­lines for a few more days run­ning up to the Oct. 1 in­sur­ance-ex­change dead­line.

Even former Re­pub­lic­an House lead­ers who sup­por­ted the Tea Party are aghast at the chaos Cruz and oth­er new in­sur­gents have caused, my col­league Jill Lawrence points out. Former Gin­grich Re­volu­tion stal­wart Dick Armey says he feels bad about all the little Franken­stein mon­sters he cre­ated with his Tea Party-friendly Freedom­Works PAC. “Freedom­Works has kind of gone to an ex­treme level of an­im­os­ity” to­ward vet­er­an House elites, he told Lawrence, “by telling these old guys to just buzz off.”

Is this a fright­en­ing phe­nomen­on, or is it merely a sign of the times? Both, per­haps. It is scary that the art of gov­ernance ap­pears to be dy­ing out, partly a vic­tim of the GOP’s Cul­tur­al Re­volu­tion. It is also un­set­tling to re­call that a half cen­tury ago John F. Kennedy was ri­diculed for be­ing un­ready for the pres­id­ency after win­ning two terms in the Sen­ate and three in the House.

Yet as dis­tress­ing as this bot­tom-rail-on-top ap­proach to polit­ics seems, and as crazy as Cruz some­times sounds, there is his­tor­ic­al reas­on for this shift. The truth is that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of Re­pub­lic­an in­sur­gents, spe­cific­ally in­clud­ing Gin­grich and go­ing back to the hal­lowed Ron­ald Re­agan, have failed to rein in the size of gov­ern­ment. That’s why the Tea Party in­sur­gency, des­pite many hope­ful at­tempts to note its de­mise, is no passing phe­nomen­on, as Cruz seems to have real­ized. And why Ted Cruz may be here for a long time to come.

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