DEMOCRATIC POLITICS is a constant tug-of-war between principle and practicality. In a well-functioning system, legislators accept that fact and compromise accordingly; the electorate rewards them for maturity and realism. In the United States, however, democracy is not functioning particularly well at the moment. And so we have Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Many — including, privately, many within his own party — accuse Mr. Cruz (R) of grandstanding. Even accepting his objection to Obamacare as a matter of high conservative principle responsive to the wishes of his constituents, the course he has chosen, with his fellow freshman Mike Lee (R-Utah) and a handful of other senators, is patently futile and counterproductive.
A Congressional Research Service analysis, provided at the request of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), has demonstrated that most of the health law would still be implemented even if Congress excluded funds for it from a temporary spending bill. Meanwhile, that bill, whose ultimate passage Mr. Cruz is obstructing, would peg the overall budget at the truncated level set in the sequester — a limitation that we regard as indiscriminate and ill-advised but that the GOP could trumpet to its grass roots as a victory for small government, if not for Mr. Cruz’s noisy crusade. And, of course, there’s the public backlash that might hit Republicans if Congress can’t pass the bill by Sept. 30, forcing a partial government shutdown.
The GOP’s political interests are a matter of indifference to us. We raise these points merely to emphasize that Mr. Cruz’s attempt to mount a legislative Battle of the Alamo is not worth waging even in terms of its benefits to conservatism. Nor does it make sense on the merits, since the health-care law represents a step in the right direction toward universal coverage and controlling costs. And that’s not to mention the real-world impact of a shutdown, actual or threatened, on federal programs and the workers who operate them.
The political and procedural reality in the Democrat-controlled Senate is that Mr. Cruz and Co. will fail; a continuing resolution with no defund-Obamacare language will probably pass near the Sept. 30 deadline. What happens in the House is anyone’s guess, given that pressure from Mr. Cruz on conservative House back-benchers forced Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to tie a defunding provision to the spending bill that’s now in the Senate.
According to some conventional wisdom, even if Mr. Cruz loses, he wins, gaining popularity among the GOP base and, hence, clout on the Hill. In that view, Mr. Boehner would be under pressure once again to use the spending bill for another symbolic attack on the health-care law. We hope, instead, that Mr. Boehner and a large majority of his party learn a different lesson: that Mr. Cruz’s extreme path is a road to ruin, for Republicans but, more important, for the country.