The story of the past few weeks in Washington can be summed up in a single headline: “How Ted Cruz won and the Republican Party lost.”
As the debt-ceiling deadline creeps ever closer and hope for a solution seems to grow dimmer, there is an increasing amount of clarity coming out of Washington about how this will all end politically.
For the Republican Party writ large, the shutdown is a political disaster. The only debate within the party is whether it amounts to a short-term political dip or a long-term collapse that could jeopardize its hold on the House and its chances to retake the Senate next November. For Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas who has become the face of the uncompromising opposition in Congress, the past fortnight has been broadly successful as he looks toward a potential 2016 presidential bid.
In short, what the government shutdown has proved is that what’s good for Cruz is not good for the Republican Party nationally. That sentiment was summed up nicely by a prominent Republican media consultant who expressed exasperation with Cruz’s approach. “The best part is this — if the Ted Cruz strategy had a 20 percent chance of working, maybe even a 10 percent chance of working — okay, fine, give ’er a shot, roll the dice,” said the consultant. “But when you have a 0.0 percent chance of success, um . . .”
This good-for-the-goose-but-not-for-the-gander reality is nothing new in politics, particularly for a party that is out of the White House and, rather openly, in search of its next act on the national stage. That has been the challenge for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus since the 2012 election exposed major cracks in the pillars of the party’s electoral strategy. (To his credit, Priebus commissioned a surprisingly honest political autopsy in the wake of that election that has been largely lost amid the focus on repealing President Obama’s health-care law and the ongoing shutdown.)
Finding a way to put immigration in its political rearview mirror, focusing on debt and spending rather than repealing health care — these are sound strategic goals for a Republican Party that badly needs to re-imagine its national coalition in 2016. But they are far less important (and popular) among the party’s vocal base, which views Obamacare in particular as an abomination that typifies everything — using government to solve all problems, imposing federal mandates on the states — that it loathes about the Obama presidency.
Enter Cruz, who carries a sort of intuitive understanding of what animates the base. His 21-hour filibuster made him even more of a hero within the GOP rank and file, and his continued insistence that fighting trumps compromising as a legislative approach is just the sort of battle cry that the base wants to hear.
Need evidence of Cruz’s gains of late? He won the 2016 straw poll at the Values Voter Summit on Saturday with 42 percent of the vote, and his speech at that gathering of social conservatives was received very warmly. He has become the center of gravity for a certain not-insignificant element of the Republican Party. Cruz has proved that he will be “the tea party’s one true standard-bearer in the Republican presidential primary,” according to Evan Smith, the CEO and editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, a independent media outlet covering the Lone Star State.
The disconnect between Cruz’s gains and his party’s struggles — as well as the belief held by many of his colleagues and the GOP professional political class that Cruz knows exactly what he’s doing and doesn’t care — has left many GOP operatives fuming at the Texas senator. There’s little question now that if he runs for president in 2016 — and we expect he will — he won’t be the choice of many of the Republicans he serves with and, perhaps more importantly, they will look for ways to make his life on the campaign trail uncomfortable.
But if you believe that fact keeps Ted Cruz up at night, you are wrong. He has never shown much interest in being a party guy — despite the fact that he is a vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. His goal is to remake the Republican Party, not trim around the edges of the status quo. That sort of radical change leaves lots of victims in its wake. At the moment, the Republican Party is one of them.