Ted Cruz just doomed the GOP -- but not in the way you think

He won a small battle with his debt limit gambit, but also made the GOP's extortion tactics much harder. Here's why

Published February 17, 2014 12:45PM (EST)

Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, John Cornyn                                              (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Hyungwon Kang)
Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, John Cornyn (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Hyungwon Kang)

Last week the seams holding together factions of the Republican party burst open once again. And once again, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was the guy scraping at them with a scalpel.

He didn't shut down the government, or talk himself hoarse on the Senate floor. But he did spoil his leadership's plan to let Senate Democrats increase the debt limit on their own without implicating any individual Republicans -- including the highest-ranking Republican, who just happens to be in the midst of an unexpectedly tough election.

This can get a little technical. But suffice it to say that Republicans -- for once! -- wanted to not filibuster a bill. To avoid the whole 60-vote requirement they've made so routine, and just get on to the up-or-down final passage vote. Let 50 Dems and Vice President Biden do all the dirty work.

But ending debate on a bill and going directly to final passage requires consent from everyone in the Senate, and Cruz refused to provide his. Now several Republicans, including Mitch McConnell himself, must wear scarlet letters whenever they face conservative activists, all because Cruz wanted to court another damaging confrontation with Obama and wants the people denying it to him to suffer for their actions.

The bad blood has grown redolent.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the Republicans who helped end Cruz's filibuster, sent his 1.86 million Twitter followers to a "must read" Wall Street Journal editorial titled "The Minority Maker: Ted Cruz hurts his party by forcing a meaningless debt-ceiling vote."

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Cruz fired back with an extraordinarily blunt attack on his colleagues on Mark Levin's conservative radio show.

"In the 13 months that I've been in the Senate, it has become apparent to me the single thing that Republican politicians hate and fear the most, and that is when they're forced to tell the truth. It makes their heads explode," Cruz said. "A lot of Republicans wanted exactly what Barack Obama wanted, exactly what Nancy Pelosi wanted, exactly want Harry Reid wanted, which is to raise the debt ceiling, but they wanted to be able to tell what they view as their foolish, gullible constituents back home that they didn't do it. And they're mad because, by refusing to consent to that, they had to come out in the open, they had to admit what they're doing. And nothing upsets them more."

This is an honest, correct assessment of the procedural theatrics surrounding the debt limit dropped into an interview littered with extremely disingenuous characterizations of the debt limit, Obamacare and other issues intended to mislead those same constituents. I'm guessing the Republicans he's criticizing have no problem at all with that tactic.

But I also think they're looking at their own disagreement the wrong way.

Establishment Republicans want to get the debt limit behind them quietly now because they know Obama won't surrender to their demands, and they don't want to spoil their opportunity to control the Senate by picking another economically damaging fight right now. For very different reasons, Cruz wants that fight right now -- or at least he wants to be seen as the Republican who's most willing to pick it.

So he exposed the Republican leadership. That was his goal. He looks like a hero to hardliners like Levin, and McConnell's primary campaign is now that much more competitive.

But to the extent that the right's shared ambition is to actually revive debt limit brinksmanship in the future, Cruz undermined the cause.

He made McConnell et al. vote to break his filibuster, and they are now half-pregnant with a clean debt limit increase. If he hadn't forced the issue, Republicans would have an easier time justifying a return to extortive tactics in 2015. But unless McConnell and Cornyn and the 10 others who joined Democrats to break Cruz' filibuster all disappear, Senate Republicans will have an extremely difficult time explaining why the debt limit is a legitimate source of leverage. After all, they all implicitly rejected that notion with their votes last week.

If all Cruz cares about is appearing to court confrontation more than the rest of the party, maybe he's fine with all this. But then I think the question of who's truly misleading Republican constituents falls right back on him.

By 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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