Ted Cruz has stepped eagerly and intentionally into a leadership role in the Republican Party this week with his successful push for a vote to defund Obamacare. That's his new plan, he says: work with the people, not his peers, to enact his policy priorities.
It sounds good in theory, and it's working for him this week. But what about when the people agree with his opponents? Or Texas disagrees with the rest of America? Cruz's push to be the de facto leader of the party is impressive — but it's a tricky path to walk for the two years before he submits his name to hold that position officially.
Costa delineated his conversations with Cruz in an article Thursday afternoon.
“I’m convinced there is a new paradigm in politics — the rise of the grassroots,” Cruz says. He cites Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster on drone policy, and the debates on Syria and gun control, as recent examples of how an “overwhelming” number of phone calls and e-mails from constituents can force the president to buckle.
“If the forums in which we make this case consist of the smoke-filled rooms of Washington," he continued, "the votes aren’t there. The only way this fight will be won is if the American people rise up and hold our elected officials accountable." On Twitter, Costa explained that the rest of the Republican Senate Caucus doesn't see this as mere rhetoric.
But that's why some GOP colleagues can't stand Cruz. They tell me he never speaks up at Sen lunches-"it's all outside game," as one explains— Robert Costa (@robertcostaNRO) September 19, 2013
There is wary respect among veteran Rs for how Cruz connects with base, but annoyance for how he doesn't folo thru on Hill w/ inside game— Robert Costa (@robertcostaNRO) September 19, 2013
In some ways, Cruz is — and he'd be happy to be described this way — the ultimate Tea Party politician: Stand obstinately for what he believes in and not care what his peers say. Not even care, he suggests, in working his colleagues to get votes, instead trusting that the voice of the people will be loud enough to carry the day.
Ted Cruz is new to Washington, but he isn't that new. Syria was a clear exception to the rule, an issue with broad public opposition but overwhelming vocal opposition, which bent across the aisle to pick up opposition from anti-interventionist Republicans and anti-war Democrats. Syria never actually came up for a vote, of course, in part it seems because the President was worried about the effort need to whip enough votes for a proposal that could pass. So citing Syria as an example of how the voice of the people can shut down something the president wants to do has some validity.
But it's really the exception that proves the rule, that rule being that almost every policy that Congress considers is complex, hotly contested, and dull. Public opinion on Syria managed to carry the day due to its exceptional nature, not because a new paradigm had been reached. The gun control issue Cruz notes, which collapsed in April after the Senate failed to overcome a filibuster of a compromise on background checks, was a little closer to how policy usually works. It too was exceptional, given the amount of attention paid to the topic and given vocal public opposition driven by one of the country's most powerful political forces. Cruz also oddly wraps into his success stories the March filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul against Obama's CIA director nominee — a fight Obama won, easily.
Normally, a senator is one of 100 tasked with reaching some sort of consensus. It is not one senator, on a steed with sword raised leading a charge of energetic Americans, who is indifferent to the other 99. The reason it is not that is because that strategy is a bad one. It might help carry the day on one issue — might — but it makes the majority of other fights — the mundane ones that are in the shadows not out of secrecy but because they are boring — that much harder. A guy riding a horse into battle with no army is easily defeated. And his peers are likely to be resentful of being called on to join the fight, as some already are on Cruz's current fight.
Cruz's apparently sincere appeal to immediate democratic populism is also not sustainable because, at some point, he's going to hold a position counter to the public at large. He already does, of course; most Americans oppose a government shutdown, whatever the cause. But there may come a time when his goals run counter to the vocal opposition. Then what? The beauty of the internet is that it's easy to cobble together any illusion of public support — tweet cascades and simple petitions — but people increasingly understand this isn't a tool for political cover.
Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of this again-apparently-sincere plan is the idea that this grass-roots mandate that Cruz insists will guide him will also provide guidance to his opponents, manifested these days by the president.
There is a widespread, Cruz-inspired consensus among many conservatives that O will cave, if only pushed by grassroots— Robert Costa (@robertcostaNRO) September 19, 2013
This idea apparently holds sway even among external commentators, that the staunch opposition over Syria shows that Obama will cave in the face of popular pressure. The differences between Syria and Obamacare, a policy that you may notice includes the president's name, are outlined in the Syria discussion above; any other differences are so obvious as to not need to be spelled out. In fact, the lesson from Syria should be: Sometimes the public does something you don't expect and can't manage.
Ted Cruz is a smart, capable politician. It serves him very well to carry the banner of the Tea Party into fights, especially into fights that he picked and isn't expected to win. He'll keep talking this game as long as he can: the outsider fighting for those on the outside. And maybe he'll keep it up his whole career, bucking the man, Ron Paul-style. Or maybe this is schtick that he'll eventually, quietly transition into something else. Something smart in the moment and helpful to his future ambitions. Something that doesn't piss off every leading Republican as he stumps in Iowa and New Hampshire.