Ted Cruz, Jesse Helms (AP/David J. Phillip/Reuters)

Ted Cruz's war on the GOP accelerates

Texas senator is the inheritor of the Jesse Helms scorched-earth legacy -- and leading his party's ongoing collapse


Brian Beutler
September 12, 2013 11:07PM (UTC)

If you've been reading this space, you know that the Republican Party has a huge mess on its hands thanks to the right's kamikaze-like Obamacare strategy.

While that mess spread in the House yesterday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was busy giving the Heritage Foundation's annual Helms lecture, named in honor of the unrepentant racist Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who left Congress in 2003 and died in 2008.

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"The willingness to say all those crazy things is a rare, rare characteristic in this town, and you know what? It's every bit as true now as it was then," Cruz said. "We need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate."

These two facts might seem disconnected, but they're actually tightly linked. The latter is a symptom of the same problem that caused the former.

If you think there's no connection between the fact that Ted Cruz admires Jesse Helms, and that Cruz is also waging war against the GOP establishment from the right, you don't know much about Ted Cruz or Jesse Helms.

Some of the crazy things Helms said underscored the fact that he was a rube. In January 1995, according to the New Republic, the then-newly crowned chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee "denounced the malfeasance of North Korean President Kim Jong Il by referring to him as 'Kim Jong Two' … [H]is staffers flinched in embarrassment. In scripting Helms's statements for the following day, they helpfully spelled the North Korean leader's name phonetically: Kim Jong Ill. Imagine their chagrin when it came time for Helms to testify. 'If this is not a treaty and it is not an executive agreement, what the heck is it?…We are entitled to know the nature of President Clinton's commitment to North Korean dictator Kim Jong the Third.'"

But Helms was also a practitioner of the same sorts of scorched-earth political and procedural tactics that have marked Cruz's brief tenure in the Senate. Cruz is much, much smarter and more sophisticated than Helms, but in many key ways he's the inheritor of Helms' legacy.

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When the conservative movement was ascendant the right could deploy those tactics against minorities, the poor, liberal elites, whomever else they wanted. In decline, it deploys them inward.

Cruz, along with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, helped incite the latest House conservative rebellion against the GOP leadership's plan to fund the government and perhaps force the Democrats to accept indefinite budget austerity. Why? Because their plan didn't also deny funding for the government unless Democrats agreed to destroy Obamacare.

“They’re screwing us,” one House GOP aide lamented to Politico.

With non-optional budget deadlines approaching, and the fate of the economy and the GOP's political future on the line, perhaps John Boehner and the rest of the party leadership will cut Cruz loose. Here are a few ways they could go about that. Unfortunately I don't see that happening. Instead, I think constant, recurring budget crises, and growing GOP dysfunction, will prevail as long as we have divided government.

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But if that's what happens, it's because the Jesse Helms wing of the GOP has the entire party by the balls.


Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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