Ted Cruz's humiliation strategy: Appealing to conservative voters by publicizing his failures

The Texan would very much like you to know that everyone hates him and he's utterly incapable of doing his job

Published September 29, 2015 5:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/John Minchillo)
(AP/John Minchillo)

Ted Cruz is on a mission. He’s going to spend as much time as he possibly can between now and the inevitable moment that Congress passes legislation funding the government embarrassing himself on the floor of the Senate. Ostensibly, Cruz is fighting to force the legislature to link continued appropriations for the federal government to a measure stripping funding for Planned Parenthood, but he knows full well that any such effort stands zero chance of overcoming a Democratic filibuster and a presidential veto. The real reason he’s subjecting himself to repeated humiliation is to make a point: that Ted Cruz is the only Republican in Washington who is willing to “fight” and conservatives should vote for him for president.

And really you have to admire Cruz for his level of commitment – he’s prepared to sacrifice every last scrap of dignity to make this point. Yesterday, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance legislation to fund the government without defunding Planned Parenthood, but Cruz was having none of it. He rose to offer an amendment blocking federal funds for the women’s health group and requested a roll call vote – the “yeas and nays” – on the question. For a roll call vote to be ordered, a senator needs the support of just ten of his colleagues, but Cruz’s request couldn’t muster that minimum level of support. So the presiding officer put the question to a voice vote, and Cruz’s amendment was struck down by a chorus of nos.

Having been rebuked by his Republican colleagues, Cruz launched into an hour-long tirade, the substance of which should be familiar to anyone who’s listened to the Texas senator speak for any length of time: Republican leaders in DC are cowards who refuse to fight, they’re betraying the conservatives who elected them on the promise to halt the Obama agenda, etc. Senate rules limited Cruz’s speaking time to one hour, which he took full advantage of. When he was cut off at the end of his hour, Cruz asked that his time be extended, and was denied. So he accused the Democratic and Republican leadership of “objecting to the American people speaking further,” paused for several seconds to let the awesome weight of his words sink in, and then ripped off his lapel microphone as he yielded the floor.

It’s all terribly melodramatic, which is precisely what Cruz wants. He’s already telling supporters that he’s going to repeat this same exact routine and encouraging them to take note of which Republicans in Congress are using “parliamentary tricks” to thwart his fight for true conservatism. He wants them to see him fail over and over. He wants to drive home the point that he is alone and scorned in DC, where he suffers for standing on principle.

It’s all part of Cruz’s fantastically cynical strategy to corner the anti-establishment conservative vote in the 2016 GOP primary. As my colleague Heather Digby Parton points out, this is Cruz’s way of positioning himself as an “outsider” even though he holds a position of significant influence inside official Washington. He’s patiently waiting for Republican primary voters to grow weary with or abandon the Trump/Carson/Fiorina troika and hoping that they’ll be enthralled by his futile exploits in opposition to the “Washington Cartel.” At the same time, he’s setting himself up as a “more conservative” alternative to Senate colleague Marco Rubio, who quite famously collaborated with Democrats and RINO sellouts to pass the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Of course, the strategy isn’t without tremendous risks and drawbacks. He’s trying to inflate the eye-glazing monotony of Senate procedure into a life-and-death struggle for the conservative movement – there’s only so much drama one can wring out of a failed request for a roll call vote. And publicizing your own failures very may well have the effect of encouraging people to think of you as a weak and ineffective legislator. And even if he does outflank all the other 2016 candidates from the right, he’ll have to face voters in the general election as the guy who repeatedly tried to shut the government down in the name of unflinching ideological purity.

Essentially, his pitch to voters is: “Look, I’m getting nothing done and it’s everyone else’s fault!” Outside the confines of the Tea Party right, that’s a bit of a hard sell.

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