Cruz has inserted himself at the confluence of two political storms: the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (nom-de-guerre: Obamacare) on Oct. 1, and the expiration of the continuing resolution to fund the government, which will also take place on Oct. 1. Free of any action by Congress, two things would happen on that day next week. First, online health insurance exchanges would open in all 50 states, allowing Americans to compare the prices and services offered by competing health plans. Second, all non-essential offices of the federal government would close for lack of funds.
Any attempt to foil Obamacare’s implementation requires Congressional action. Congress also needs to act in order to avoid a government shutdown. Cruz has insisted that any law meant to fund the government must also defund Obamacare. He has threatened to filibuster any government funding measure that doesn’t. Starting Tues., Sept. 24, Cruz spoke for 21 hours against Obamacare in what seemed like a filibuster, but technically wasn’t. As a Senator, that’s his right. Also, for him, it was a deeply rational political decision.
By insisting that funding the government be contingent on defunding Obamacare, he is following a dire logic to its conclusion: politics and policy no longer point in the same direction.
This is anarchy masked by procedure. Obamacare is the law of the land, approved by all three branches of government. Any attempt to formally repeal would fail. Frankly, it’s a pretty benign piece of legislation, but that sort of rationality is not part of Cruz’s lizard-brained political calculation. In light of these facts, most politicians—even many Republicans—have resigned themselves to the unenviable prospect of health care for all. Cruz is not so easily deterred.
Cruz is taking the nation’s political and economic livelihood hostage in order to stake out a radical political position. This gambit is irresponsible in the extreme, and when the dust settles, it won’t have worked. Obamacare will stay law. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that Cruz’s strategy would “shut down the government and keep Obamacare funded.”
But that’s a question of policy—of assessing the actual outcomes of legislative action. Cruz is concerned with politics. His irrational policy position is a deeply rational political maneuver. He can win massive credit with his Tea Party base and incur few consequences for himself or the national party.
Political brinksmanship has been a constant since the election of 2010, when a new generation of young, extremely conservative Republicans seized the House of Representatives. Many commenters assumed that this victory would be unsustainable and that Republicans would find themselves eventually constrained. Immediately before the GOP was rebuked in the 2012 election, President Obama predicted there would be a “war … inside that party” if he was reelected. The suggestion here is that this intra-party conflict would cause Republicans to buckle, to the Democrats’ political advantage.
That assumption seems to be wrong. The rules of the game provide no inducement for Cruz and his Tea Party to acquiesce to the Democrats or to the established interests in their own party—uncompromising conservatism is, politically, the right move for them.
If Congress continues to falter, blame may fall at Republicans’ feet. But for Tea Party congresspeople, that doesn’t matter. National unpopularity may hurt Republicans in national elections, but House races are distinctly local. Therefore, conservative candidates in conservative districts can use their opposition to Obamacare, even their support for a government shutdown, to win votes.
In statewide Senate races, primaries—voted in by the most fervent Republican activists—ensure that only the most ideologically pure conservatives will win their party’s nomination. Ted Cruz is surely aware of this; in 2012 he wielded his conservative credentials to defeat Texas’s former Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in the Republican Primary, beating long odds.
Whether, idle talk aside, an extended government shutdown would eventually hurt the GOP’s standing among conservative voters who depend on federal services but don’t realize it—that’s a question for another day.
At present, Cruz is doing away with the conventional wisdom that the right wing of the Republican Party will eventually ease their reckless, anarchic zeal. Republicans from conservative states and districts see electoral advantage in intransigence. Compromise would make them vulnerable to defeat by yet more conservative primary challengers. The structure of the game rewards zeal; in fact, it insists upon it. And October 1 approaches.