Ted Cruz's long-term strategy: Brilliant, but stupid

The fauxlibuster will be great for the senator's career -- unless he actually wants to be president

Published September 25, 2013 4:10PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Ted Cruz announced yesterday that he would filibuster Obamacare, and not stop until he could not stand anymore, or at least until his allotted speaking time was up. Thanks to Majority Leader Harry Reid, Cruz was given 21 hours in which to pretend to "filibuster" a Continuing Resolution until it was time for a cloture vote that Cruz has known all along that he would be unable to delay or block. Everyone knows this fun talk was entirely a waste of time. Everyone besides the people it's actually aimed at: Right-wing Obamacare-hating Fox viewers who don't understand how the Senate works. To them, it's an inspiring Mr. Smith moment, and they took down the names of every Republican who didn't #standwithCruz.

There's some debate as to whether Cruz is crazy-like-a-fox or just an idiot with an inflated ego, but the fact that he could be either shows how little it matters. He thinks he's quite smart, he's clearly quite arrogant, and he doesn't care whom he pisses off on the road to becoming the biggest conservative grass-roots hero in the country. Which, if he wasn't already, he might be now that he's wrapped up his heroic, entirely meaningless all-night talking jag against a cloture vote. (The fact that, near the end of his epic free-associative cri de coeur, Harry Reid offered Cruz at least another hour of floor time, knowing that Cruz would refuse it, was a funny end to the entire charade that few on the right will notice or remember.)

Some time before this pretend filibuster, a few conservative authors wrote some pieces disingenuously asking why liberals were so obsessed with Cruz, why liberals hated him so much, and so on. The obvious point was, they hate him cuz they're scared. Liberals wouldn't trash the guy if they weren't all worried that he will electrify American voters like a second Reagan. But in my experience liberals aren't particularly concerned about Cruz, nor should they be, because he pretty openly cares more about attention than results. Nothing Ted Cruz has done since arriving in the U.S. Senate has furthered the cause of conservatism. It has all furthered the cause of Ted Cruz's career.

Liberals hate Mitch McConnell, and with good reason: He's good at his job. Ted Cruz could not be more useless as a senator when it comes to implementing the conservative agenda. On the left he's primarily a figure of fun. It's Republicans who are obsessed with him. And his fellow elected Republicans despise him. John McCain and Peter King openly hate him. Others are too scared to say they hate him in public but dispatch their aides to say so to congressional reporters.

Here's the problem for the GOP: Their voters love Cruz, and hate actual effective legislators like McConnell.

Ted Cruz can afford to sabotage and undermine his own party, because conservatives hate the Republican Party. Poll after poll has shown that the small but incredibly vocal and active group of Americans who identify with the "Tea Party" detest the GOP, and also make up much of its voting base. "Tea Party Republicans" "make up about half of the Republican primary electorate (49%)," according to a July Pew survey. Guess what that half of the GOP electorate wants:

Fully 69% of Tea Party Republican voters want Republican leaders in Washington to move in a more conservative direction. That compares with just 43% of all non-Tea Party Republicans and just 24% of moderates who do not agree with the Tea Party.

According to a September Pew survey, it's gotten worse:

The job rating of GOP leaders among Tea Party Republicans has fallen 15 points since February, from 42% to 27%. Disapproval has risen from 54% to 71% over this period.

Polls from other organizations also show that Republican voters strongly disapprove of the Republican Party. Among self-identified "very conservative" Republicans, the dislike for GOP leadership has skyrocketed since last year. The different factions disapprove for very different reasons, but it's the most conservative Republicans who are the most reliable voters and they want less compromise and more all-night useless filibusters. Even though they represent a minority of a minority (remember, politicians and the press routinely and incorrectly assume that Americans are much more conservative than they actually are), they're the loud minority that always shows up to vote.

This is how Cruz managed to turn a humiliating defeat for his party into a huge personal branding moment. As Dave Weigel says: "When Cruz walks into future conservative movement gatherings, he'll be welcomed like Jesus riding the donkey into Jerusalem."

Here's where Cruz's arrogance will hurt him, though. If his goal is to just become Allen West, a beloved right-wing activist figure who'll receive wingnut welfare for the rest of his natural life, he's already won. If he actually thinks he's going to be president, he's deluding himself.

We already know Chris Christie is going to be the candidate of the donor class (unless Jeb enters, obviously). This is what passes for the "moderate" Republican "establishment" now, and they are enamored with Christie. The problem is the exact same dynamic that has made Cruz beloved and McConnell hated is in play: Conservatives hate Christie, despite the fact that he handily passes the Buckley rule of being the most conservative electable candidate, at least in New Jersey.

So there's room, in other words, for an insurgent "real conservative" to challenge Christie, and maybe win. But the trick is to try to be an insurgent conservative that the donor class is still comfortable with. Cruz is not bothering to make alliances with people whose support he would actually need if he decided to run for president. As a trio of BuzzFeed political reporters show, Cruz has already alienated the donor class.

“When the Wall Street Journal starts to belittle you … That’s what these people read every day,” said one senior GOP aide.

Cruz's calculation, I guess, is that 2016 is the year pissed off Republican primary voters reject the "compromise" "moderate" candidate foisted on them by the party establishment and nominate the bomb-thrower. The only problem is there's practically no precedent for that. The closest the modern GOP has come to rejecting an establishment candidate in favor of one beloved by the grass roots is Barry Goldwater. The last two presidential election cycles have seen the GOP nominate someone the base hated -- only to find that the base stopped hating John McCain and Mitt Romney in the periods between their wrapping up the nomination and the mornings after they lost their elections. Erick Erickson, Cruz's biggest fan in the right-wing press right now, hated Mitt Romney in 2012, until he didn't.

Maybe the GOP crackup is now so severe that an insurgent can beat the establishment. But you still do need money, and allies, to win primaries. Rand Paul, the last guy to hold a big base-pleasing talking filibuster, is turning on the charm for his meetings with the money people. If Cruz is looking for a future in something other than talk radio, he should take notes.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

MORE FROM Alex Pareene

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Filibuster Obamacare Republican Party Talking Filibuster Tea Party Ted Cruz U.s. Senate