Ted Cruz's nutty Senate takeover: Why GOP's "amnesty" freakout is a horrifying omen

The Tea Party's talking shutdown before the president announces his immigration plan. Here's why it's so troubling

Published November 14, 2014 11:59AM (EST)

  (Jeffrey Malet, maletphoto.com)
(Jeffrey Malet, maletphoto.com)

At certain moments during the past year’s long and often tedious march to November, the political class, already bored with discussing a GOP Senate takeover most considered nearly certain, started debating a few post-election hypotheticals. With Republicans in control in both the House and the Senate, would the president try again to strike the elusive grand bargain?(No.) Would Senate Republicans retaliate against Democrats for choosing the so-called nuclear option? (Maybe.) Would Democrats filibuster relentlessly, like Republicans did when they were the minority party in the Senate? (Probably not.)

Of all the questions about a Republican Senate that hovered over the midterms, though, none cast a shadow as large as this: Would the swelling of the GOP’s ranks lead to the Tea Party finally escaping its quarantine in the House of Representatives? Would a wave of Republican victories leave Ted Cruz, the Tea Party hero who helped author last year’s government shutdown, as the de facto leader of the U.S. Senate? Less militant Republicans, like Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. John McCain, promised the answer was no. But because I’d observed the way the establishment of the party had repeatedly bowed to Tea Party threats, I was a skeptic.

Well, it’s still more than a month until the new Congress is sworn in, but it’s already looking like we can put that debate to rest. The Republican Party will make no clean break from its recent ideological and procedural radicalism, despite whatever some of the more grizzled members of the party leadership may hope. The era of government by crisis — from debt ceiling to government shutdown and all the good stuff in-between — is not over. This will be Ted Cruz’s Senate.

Here’s what has me feeling so certain: On Wednesday night, Fox News reported that President Obama was readying his long-promised, and repeatedly deferred, executive orders to “reform” America’s immigration system (which in concrete terms means reduce deportations). Soon thereafter, the Wall Street Journal reported that a bloc of no less than 50 Republicans in Congress was already maneuvering to thwart the orders by attaching language preemptively barring presidential action to “must-pass” legislation. And what makes the passage of this legislation so non-negotiable? It’s needed to fund the government.

Yes, not even two weeks removed from a midterm election that Republican leadership promised would bring an end to gridlock and partisan warfare, GOPers in the House are already brandishing the government shutdown threat. “Everybody has said they want to do something to stop his recklessness,” Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, the chief organizer of the push, told the Journal. “If we have an opportunity to actually do something rather than complain … why shouldn’t we?” And to be fair to Salmon and his teammates, if one truly believed the melodramatic charges of lawlessness Republicans toss at the president, then the most logical move would be to follow Rep. Joe Barton’s lead and bring up impeachment. In that sense, then, the Tea Party’s settling for a government shutdown can be seen as a conciliatory gesture toward GOP leadership.

Of course, Tea Partyers in the House were far from the only conservatives to respond to news of Obama’s executive orders with the kind of revolutionary fervor Tuesday supposedly ended. Red State’s Erick Erickson, who is perhaps second only to Rush Limbaugh when it comes to speaking the id of the conservative movement, also flipped out. “The Republican response,” Erickson wrote, “should be to make Camp David a refugee holding facility and close down every golf course controlled by public funds at which the president might wish to play.” Not content to merely close the greens, Erickson went on to urge Republicans to “basically defund the White House, save for security for the president and his family.” Perfunctory golf jokes aside, the snark was directed primarily toward GOP leadership. By refusing to threaten another shutdown, Erickson wrote, the Republican Party had “already negotiated the terms of its surrender.”

Yet as loud as the right wing’s expressions of outrage have been, there’s one distinctive voice that so far has been most conspicuous in its absence — that of Ted Cruz. To be sure, the junior senator from Texas hasn’t been completely mum about his vision of life in the new Senate. But beyond a pre-election Washington Post interview, in which Cruz spoke vaguely about avoiding the “mushy middle” and aggressively trying to repeal Obamacare, the likely future presidential candidate has played it close to the chest. Perhaps he’s holding back in order to glean how much influence his enormous popularity with the Tea Party can buy him in a Republican Senate. I'm guessing he likes what he sees: A GOP so at war with itself that, after less than two weeks, the post-victory honeymoon period has already ended.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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