Ted Cruz's sulking rage: How his ire could impact GOP leaders

By attacking McConnell and Boehner from the right, Cruz and friends make rival Republicans actually look reasonable

By Alex Pareene

Published February 19, 2014 4:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Republicans are stumbling toward the 2014 midterm elections fighting among themselves again. Democrats are happy to see it, because Republican disarray is one of the few things that could prevent another very good election for the GOP. We should all know the reasons for the Republican advantage by now: Midterm voters are older, whiter and more conservative than presidential election voters. Democrats have more Senate seats to defend. Republicans have a huge, baked-in advantage in the House, thanks to redistricting and the clustering of liberal voters in urban districts. So the great Democratic hope is that Republicans will sabotage themselves, by nominating unelectable wingnuts for Senate seats, and demoralizing the base with infighting. So far, Republicans seem to be cooperating.

The element of the GOP that is dedicated to a magical thinking-based strategy of forcing the nation into default until Obamacare is repealed is not happy with Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The party leaders agreed to support a "clean" debt limit increase, so that the party could not be accused of trying to bankrupt the country (again) right before these very important elections. (The plan is to save the next major crisis for 2015, I think.) This, obviously, has been treated as a grand betrayal of conservative principles by the usual players.

Ted Cruz -- whose Senate career seems to be leading toward either sabotaging the Republican 2016 campaign or quitting the Senate after one term to become a professional conservative celebrity -- actually forced Senate Republicans to openly vote for the increase, and ever since he has been relentlessly trashing McConnell and the GOP leadership for capitulating. As he told conservative radio firebrand Mark Levin, "They wanted to be able to tell what they view as their foolish, gullible constituents back home that they didn't do it."

That is basically true! It's also true that McConnell and Boehner can't really blame Ted Cruz for this being an issue. As Brian Beutler explained, once the GOP leadership allowed the debt limit vote to be used to extort concessions from Democrats, they legitimized debt limit extortion as a tactic. Do it once, and conservatives will understandably wonder why you're not doing it every time the debt limit is up for a vote.

Speaker Boehner is similarly under attack, from Georgia Senate candidate Rep. Paul Broun (who voted, in the last speaker's election, for former House member Allen West), who is precisely the sort of candidate who could lose Republicans a Senate race in a very red state. Well-heeled right-wing pressure groups like Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund have also called for Boehner to resign as speaker.

One side-effect of all these right-wing complaints is to make Speaker Boehner and Sen. McConnell look like reasonable men.

For Republicans, the point of voting for the clean debt limit increase this time is to appear moderate, mainstream and not crazy. The party has a bit of an "image problem," which is to say that many Americans correctly perceive the party as being essentially controlled by angry apocalyptic extremists. Ted Cruz (and Paul Broun and the Senate Conservatives Fund and all the rest) are helping -- perhaps inadvertently -- GOP leaders shed that image. Cruz bashing McConnell makes McConnell look moderate. Now, it looks a bit like the Republicans are a mainstream party with a small, vocal fringe element, instead of an extremist party with a pragmatic element.

Not to overstate the positive effect. Right-wing infighting could still contribute to McConnell losing his election or fringe candidates preventing the party from taking the Senate. But right now, GOP leaders can point to the ire of nutjobs like Broun and assholes like Cruz and tell the press, see? We've marginalized them! And everyone is so eager for the Republican "fever" to "break" that the fact that the party hasn't actually moderated a single one of its various discredited positions won't much matter.

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

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