GOP's real Ted Cruz problem: Why party's revenge plot is silly and self-defeating

Republicans are in a bad predicament with Cruz -- but it's their own fault, and there's little they can do about it

Published June 10, 2014 12:43PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jim Cole)
(AP/Jim Cole)

The ongoing fight between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party is turning into a downward spiral of vengeance that would leave any Greek tragedian impressed. After blowing their chance at taking the Senate in 2010, the establishment punched back at the Tea Party and moved to keep the kooks from winning primaries in 2014. The Tea Party, seeing its candidates go down, had its own “revenge” by booting out establishment Republicans in Texas and turning the state party into the Tea Party’s very own ideological sandbox. And now the establishment, having dealt with the foot soldiers, is planning to exact retribution on the very avatar of the Tea Party ethos: Ted Cruz.

Time’s Jay Newton-Small reports that Republicans, with primary season largely behind them, are plotting to take revenge on Cruz for the outsize role he’s played in destroying the Republican brand over the last 17 months. Their swift and brutal retribution will come in the form of stripping his committee assignments and cutting him off from big donors. Doing so would be a just and fitting punishment for a senator who’s caused no small amount of trouble for his own party. It would also be completely stupid.

The truth about the Republicans’ “Ted Cruz problem” is that the “problem,” such as it exists, is their own damn fault. If one were asked to single out the single most damaging action Cruz has inflicted upon the GOP, the easy answer is the Obamacare-inspired government shutdown, for which Cruz was the chief proponent and agitator. Everyone recalls his ridiculous “filibuster” against the Senate bill to fund government operations (and Obamacare), and while his hours of speech-making got a lot of attention, it did nothing to actually prevent the Senate from passing the bill. The impasse came when the House Republican leadership threw in with Cruz and stripped funding for Obamacare from their own version of the legislation. They, like Cruz, felt there was political benefit in forcing the issue and a chance they could get the White House to back down.

Put plainly, Cruz wouldn’t have had the influence he did if his ideas weren’t shared by so many on the Republican side of the aisle. Punishing Cruz for the shutdown is also an indictment of John Boehner and Eric Cantor and every other Republican who actually made it possible. At the most basic level, Cruz is a senator because he represents ideas the Republican base finds very appealing. Time’s article mentions February’s debt ceiling fight, in which Cruz imposed a 60-vote supermajority to pass any increase, as one of the “uncomfortable votes” he’s forced his colleagues to take. That vote was “uncomfortable” for them because Republican voters really don’t want the debt limit to be increased.

Let’s take a look at the establishment’s proposed punishments for Cruz and how they’re at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. Cutting off Cruz from whale donors within the party is, for the moment, pointless. As Time notes, Cruz’s considerable fundraising strength comes from “a small but vocal part of the base,” which has “given him a powerful grassroots-fundraising platform.” If the Republicans come to Cruz and say “we’re cutting you off from Wall Street,” Cruz would probably shrug and send out a fundraising email saying he’s been cut off from Wall Street. (You could argue that Cruz would need those donors if he ever wants to be president, but he never will be president, so stop making silly arguments.)

Stripping Cruz of his committee assignments would be an embarrassment for him (assuming Cruz is capable of feeling embarrassment) but it would absolutely enrage the Tea Party base that considers Cruz its hero. The practical effect of doing that would probably be to further strengthen Cruz’s appeal to the base by making him a martyr of the establishment.

That’s why this notion of taking “revenge” on Cruz – while perhaps cathartic to the Republicans he’s burned and amusing to observers on the left – is so stupid. Cruz is the type of guy who spins reprimands from the establishment as badges of honor that prove he’s shaking up the system. To that point, Cruz is himself a perfect expression of the modern Republican base: brash, loud, reflexively oppositional and thoroughly uninterested in the actual business of governing. For the establishment to take “revenge” on him would be to drive a wedge between the party and the base just as they’re going into the 2016 election cycle.

And Cruz himself isn’t going anywhere. Texas loves him, and he’s succeeded in remaking the Texas GOP in his own image. His clout with the Tea Party means he still has sway, even if he’s making enemies. Greg Sargent sees him shaping the Republican position on immigration going forward, now that the chances of passing a reform bill have essentially flatlined. The best hope Republicans have for ridding themselves of Cruz’s is to wait and see if he’ll sell out and cash in like Jim DeMint, or to elect a Republican president and somehow get Cruz nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court (an outcome some conservatives think is at least possible).

But for now Republicans are stuck with Cruz, and for that they have themselves to thank.

By Simon Maloy

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