It's hard not to admire how Senator Ted Cruz spent his summer. Months of touring the country and TV appearances telling conservatives that he wanted an (unwinnable) fight with the White House on Obamacare, getting the fight, and now sitting ringside cheering half-heartedly as the House throws punches.
Cruz, a freshman from Texas, wasn't the first guy to suggest that the party use a budget fight as leverage to rollback the Affordable Care Act, the president's signature legislation. That idea dates back to 2011, as Chris Hayes noted on All In Wednesday night. In his segment, Hayes probably gave Cruz more credit than is due for the current push by the Republican Party, which was championed by Sen. Mike Lee in July.
But the issue quickly became Cruz's, as he continued to insist that the Republicans could win an unwinnable fight. The idea: the Republican House passes a funding bill that excludes money for Obamacare, and forces the Democratic Senate to either pass that or shut down the government. Dust off hands; crack open the Dom Perignon. As he toured the country, arm-in-arm with the Heritage Foundation, Cruz made a mantra out of his strategy for success. "If you have an impasse," he said at one point, "you know -- one side or the other has to blink. How do we win this fight? Don't blink." Conservative activists like Erick Erickson seized on the idea.
The problem, as Slate's Dave Weigel noted on Wednesday, is that this strategy has a zero percent chance of happening, in part because there are so many eyes that would need to stay open. "There will be no 'defunding of Obamacare,'" he wrote. "If you want to skip to the end of this drama, past Friday's likely vote on the resolution that defunds Obamacare, the final page reads '… and Obamacare survived.'" That's because, first, Obama will never sign a law gutting his legacy. (Update, 11:00 a.m.: As it made clear in a tweet.) And, second, the Democrats in the Senate will strip out the Obamacare exception and pass the bill anyway, a "continuing resolution" that maintains current funding levels until a full budget can be passed. Then the House has to decide if it will shut down the government. It may — but it's unlikely to. Polls continually show that Republicans would be blamed if it happened, and with elections a year away, it's likely that members of the party facing reelection fights would quickly lose its appetite for the unpopular position.
And then Cruz pulled off a slick little bit of self-preservation. After Speaker John Boehner's announcement on Wednesday that the House would set the plan into motion, the Huffington Post reports Cruz's response:
[A]s House Republican leaders unveiled their latest plan for sinking Obamacare ... Cruz thanked House Republicans for their fight, and said they're on their own.
"[Democratic Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so," Cruz said in a statement. "At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people."
Here's the analogy. The scrawny kid befriends a JV wrestler and convinces him that he can beat up a linebacker. "Go beat up that linebacker," the little guy says. "You can do it; you just have to want it more." The wrestler hesitates, with some of his other wrestler friends are egging him on. "You'll help, right?" he asks the scrawny kid. "Totally," the kid nods, pushing him forward into the playground. The JV wrestler throws down the challenge. The linebacker looks up and growls. The scrawny kid yells over his shoulder, "Better luck next time!" as he walks back to Chess Club.
Unsurprisingly, House Republicans weren't happy with this development. Our colleagues at the National Journal collected some of the reaction, including a quote reported by Fox News' Chad Pergram from one House member about Senate conservatives: "Waved white flag & dropped their rifles before firing a shot." To be fair, though, Senate Republicans have always been skeptical about the plan — it was just that one scrawny new kid that was out there picking fights.
And now the wrestler has to throw punches. At left, a video released by the Speaker criticizing the president for not being willing to negotiate on the debt ceiling — a separate but similar debate. The punch lands, but doesn't do much damage. Conservatives like Erick Erickson continue egging things on from the sideline, insisting that the fight is winnable.
As we noted on Wednesday, the plan may never have been to actually win this particular fight. Instead, House Republican leaders may have been trying to quiet insurgents in their party by allowing them a shot, intending then to shrug and say, now let's try it our way. In his piece, Weigel makes a similar point. Or perhaps Jonathan Chait at New York is right — "the House Republican leadership simply survives day by day, evading today's problem by worsening tomorrow's, with no overarching plan to avoid inflicting disaster upon the country or their own party."
But the fight already has a winner: that scrawny new kid from Texas, who is now a champion to everyone who wanted to see a brawl and who will walk away from the sidelines unscathed.
Update, 1:30 p.m.: In the wake of critique from his House colleagues, Cruz pledged on Thursday to "do everything necessary and anything possible to defund Obamacare" — including launching a speaking filibuster. When his colleague Rand Paul filibustered the president's CIA nominee in March, Cruz joined the effort.