The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What will mainstream conservatives do?

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and their cohorts at FreedomWorks and Heritage Action are nothing if not predictable. If there is a deal, they are against it. If there is a harebrained scheme designed to make the GOP House and/or Senate leadership look foolish, they are behind it. And if there is an opportunity to make money off the made-up “betrayal” by the “establishment,” they are on the case. (Conservative Action Project, Restore America’s Voice PAC and others were out with e-mail fundraising appeals on Wednesday).

But whether they are a weight around the necks of Republicans or a mere annoyance depends on the answers to these questions:

Will House moderates stop deferring to hard-liners so as to give the speaker a workable majority with which to make conservative gains?

Will the speaker of the House adopt a more confrontational stance with hard-liners in order to advance achievable conservative legislation?

Will GOP Senators Pat Toomey (Pa.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and others continue to join Cruz in his schemes, thereby inflating his influence?

Will fiscal conservatives in the Senate, House, outside groups and business community push back against the anti-market fever infecting some hard-liners and/or primary some of them?

Will Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) figure out he made a rotten decision in trying to play to the hard-line base rather than compete in the grown-up’s lane in 2016?

Will conservative media wise up and stop enabling destructive forces and figures?

Will donors to Heritage and other right-wing groups sour on use of their funds to attack conservatives who don’t measure up to Cruzian levels of fanaticism?

Will Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) join the hardliners, resist or flit back and forth as he did on the shutdown fight?

Will House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) be able to put together a limited package of achievable items, not including Obamacare defunding, around which House Republicans can rally?

Will GOP governors play a more active role in opposing hard-liners’ disruptive behavior and trying to achieve worthwhile gains for their states?

Will challengers to red-state incumbent senators suffer because of the party’s antics in the shutdown?

Mainstream conservatives don’t have the ability to stop Cruz from being Cruz or to convince Jim DeMint to stop being a menace. They can, however, push back. One way is by, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) did on the debt-ceiling deal, keeping the focus on results. (“This package is a joke compared to what we could have gotten if we had a more reasonable approach. For the party, this is a moment of self-evaluation, we are going to assess how we got here. If we continue down this path, we are really going to hurt the Republican Party long term.”) When a Cruz supporter says after a thumping, “It was important to have the fight” or “We need to show people we have principles,” a warning light should go on. With apologies to Samuel Goldwyn, if you want to send a message send an e-mail; if you want to make a difference, win elections and pass legislation.

Mainstream conservatives can also be just as forceful and determined as the Cruz cult. They can debate, engage and debunk. And, most important, they can learn to agree on reachable goals so as to provide their leaders with a purpose for their fights. Fighting for the sake of fighting is not serving the constituents or the country or the conservative movement. Mainstream conservatives need to make this clear, and then go win some policy battles. If they do that, Cruz and the flock of self-serving money-grubbers who surround him will be properly seen as neither conservative nor important.