How to Explain the Rise of Ted Cruz

When polarization turns governing into constant war, ideological warriors find themselves in demand.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: U.S Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) leaves the Capitol after he spoke on the Senate floor for more than 21 hours September 25, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Sen. Cruz ended his marathon speech against the Obamacare at noon on Wednesday. 
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Ronald Brownstein
Sept. 26, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

Any­one re­mem­ber back to Feb­ru­ary when Time magazine anoin­ted Cuban-Amer­ic­an Sen. Marco Ru­bio as the GOP’s “sa­vior” on its cov­er? Sev­en months later, it’s Ru­bio’s Cuban-Amer­ic­an Texas dop­pel­gang­er, Sen. Ted Cruz, who has grabbed the party’s at­ten­tion — or, more pre­cisely, seized its throat.

Cruz’s suc­cess in ec­lipsing the Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­an shows how the GOP cur­rent has shif­ted on both means and ends since Pres­id­ent Obama’s reelec­tion. Ru­bio’s mo­ment came when he spear­headed GOP ne­go­ti­ations with Sen­ate Demo­crats over im­mig­ra­tion re­form. That’s an is­sue de­signed to reach His­pan­ic and oth­er minor­ity voters bey­ond the GOP’s tra­di­tion­al co­ali­tion.

Cruz has as­cen­ded through un­stint­ing con­front­a­tion with Demo­crats and even fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans, most fe­ro­ciously over block­ing Obama’s health care law. Un­like im­mig­ra­tion, that’s a cause that most ex­cites the GOP base — and will likely fur­ther ali­en­ate His­pan­ics (who would dis­pro­por­tion­ately be­ne­fit from ex­pand­ing cov­er­age).

Cruz’s rise of­fers more evid­ence that a cli­mate of po­lar­iz­a­tion in Con­gress in­ex­or­ably tends to em­power each party’s ideo­lo­gic­al van­guard against its cen­ter. Po­lar­iz­a­tion un­der­cuts con­gres­sion­al cent­rists, who ex­ert in­flu­ence by find­ing com­prom­ises and clos­ing deals. But cent­rists can’t de­liv­er either out­come when the parties are com­mit­ted to per­petu­al con­flict. When le­gis­la­tion is con­stant war, parties tend to seek lead­er­ship from war­ri­ors. Enter Cruz.

In the near term, Cruz and his al­lies in the kami­kaze caucus be­sieging Obama’s health care law have little chance to suc­ceed, no mat­ter how long Cruz holds the Sen­ate floor. Too many con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans re­cog­nize that the party lacks the lever­age to force Obama to re­nounce his sig­na­ture achieve­ment and be­lieve that the weapons that Cruz and like-minded House Re­pub­lic­ans would wield against the pres­id­ent — de­fund­ing the gov­ern­ment or de­fault­ing on the fed­er­al debt — are the polit­ic­al equi­val­ent of a sui­cide bomb.

And yet it’s un­deni­able that since last fall, mo­mentum in the party has flowed to­ward the vis­ion shared by Cruz and House con­ser­vat­ives: The GOP road to re­viv­al de­mands un­bend­ing con­front­a­tion with Obama and an un­al­loyed con­ser­vat­ive mes­sage fo­cused on shrink­ing gov­ern­ment in 2016. That’s al­most a com­plete re­versal of the dom­in­ant im­pulse im­me­di­ately after Obama’s reelec­tion, which marked the fifth time in the past six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions that Demo­crats had won the pop­u­lar vote. At that point, the GOP’s loudest fac­tion ar­gued that Obama’s vic­tory showed the party needed to reach bey­ond its gray­ing base of con­ser­vat­ive, mostly older, whites.

No one would ever con­fuse Ru­bio with a mod­er­ate, but the con­vic­tion that the party needed a broad­er reach provided the tail­wind for his rock­et­ing postelec­tion rise. Al­though Ru­bio would nev­er phrase it this way, his em­brace of le­gis­la­tion that in­cluded a path to cit­izen­ship for mil­lions of im­mig­rants here il­leg­ally came to sym­bol­ize the ac­know­ledg­ment that the GOP could not re­build a ma­jor­ity co­ali­tion without re­con­sid­er­ing some of its long-held be­liefs.

The rise of Cruz and the kami­kaze caucus re­flects pre­cisely the op­pos­ite. Their strategy as­sumes, against for­mid­able evid­ence, that the tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an base re­mains a na­tion­al ma­jor­ity — if it can be in­spired to turn out by way of un­di­luted con­ser­vat­ive ar­gu­ments ex­pressed through un­flinch­ing con­front­a­tion against Demo­crats.

That vis­ion has elec­tri­fied con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists and in­terest groups and steam­rolled over the hes­it­a­tions of GOP con­gres­sion­al lead­ers du­bi­ous about the tac­tics (if not the goals) this move­ment is de­mand­ing. It’s re­veal­ing that Ru­bio, ever since the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate, has seemed in a breath­less race to re­con­cile with the Right; he poin­tedly stood at Cruz’s side this week.

The force of this wave vir­tu­ally guar­an­tees that con­gres­sion­al con­ser­vat­ives will im­pose on the party a pro­ces­sion of con­front­a­tions against Obama through his second term. And that will com­pel all Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing the 2016 con­tenders, to re­peatedly choose between a con­ser­vat­ive base de­mand­ing they rush the bat­tle­ments and polls show­ing most Amer­ic­ans res­ist scorched-earth tac­tics such as shut­ter­ing the gov­ern­ment or de­fault­ing on the debt. In this cur­rent round, while Ru­bio has aligned with Cruz, Govs. Chris Christie of New Jer­sey and Scott Walk­er of Wis­con­sin and (in­triguingly) Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky have mostly dis­tanced them­selves from his charge.

The re­cent lib­er­al up­ris­ing that sank Lawrence Sum­mers’s po­ten­tial ap­point­ment as Fed­er­al Re­serve Board chair­man sug­gests Demo­crats are not im­mune to these cent­ri­fu­gal pres­sures. If Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton runs in 2016, the most tempt­ing open­ing against her would be for a pop­u­list of­fer­ing sharp­er con­front­a­tion, not only against the GOP but also Wall Street, big busi­ness, and the rich. Clin­ton would re­main favored against any rival, but if Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren of Mas­sachu­setts thundered in­to that role, she would likely give the front-run­ner some sleep­less nights.

Cruz, if he runs in 2016, prom­ises the same for any GOP can­did­ate res­ist­ant to his con­cep­tion of total war. Vet­er­an party strategists cau­tion that Re­pub­lic­an primary voters have his­tor­ic­ally flir­ted with war­ri­ors like Cruz but gone home with nom­in­ees (think Bob Dole or Mitt Rom­ney) who prom­ise to re­dir­ect gov­ern­ment, not an­ni­hil­ate the op­pos­i­tion. The open ques­tion is wheth­er that his­tory still ap­plies in a Re­pub­lic­an Party in­creas­ingly whipsawed by the bot­tom­less ali­en­a­tion of con­ser­vat­ives con­vinced that Obama and the urb­an­ized, ra­cially di­verse co­ali­tion sup­port­ing him are sweep­ing away the Amer­ica they have known.

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