Give Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) credit for being exactly the type of legislator he promised to be – a haymaker-throwing brawler with little interest in the sausage-making process that is legislating. Cruz ran on being an explicit rejection of that often unpleasant and messy undertaking, vowing instead to wage a partisan war on everyone who opposed conservative principles. He ran as The Anti-Washington and that’s exactly what he’s turned out to be.
Cruz is no wild-eyed zealot either. To regard him as such would be not only a mistake but also a misunderstanding of what he’s trying to do. Cruz is trying to change the dynamics of how the Senate – and Washington, D.C. – work by stirring up a hornet’s nest of outside, grassroots pressure that insulates him from the traditional machinations of official Washington while creating a new political power center at the same time.
The strategy has won some qualified victories and has definitely changed how the GOP operates in Congress and Sen. Cruz deserves his share of the credit for it.
Now, Cruz and his outside allies are engaged in their biggest fight yet by trying to “defund” some parts of Obamacare in the government funding bill for next year, risking a government shutdown in the process. The strategy of Cruz and the defunders goes something like this: Strip Obamacare money from the government funding bill in the House, stop Senate Democrats from adding it back in, then stand firm and dare Democrats and President Obama to shut down the government. If a shutdown does occur, the plan is to take their battle to the court of public opinion and somehow pressure Senate Democrats and President Obama to accept Obamacare’s partial defunding.
If the plan sounds a bit incomplete that’s because it is. Cruz and his allies are currently struggling to stop Senate Democrats from adding Obamacare funding back into the House package that stripped it. To do so, they must filibuster the bill itself, ironically blocking a vote on the very bill they demand must pass and demonstrating just how flawed their original plan always was.
How do the defunders get Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to allow a vote on the Obamacare-free funding bill and prevent him from putting the money back in at the same time? So far, there isn’t an answer. This question though is key to the entire effort. If Cruz and his allies can’t succeed here how can they succeed at all?
The answer is they can’t. That Sen. Cruz and his allies have no way to force Sen. Reid to do what they want is the fatal flaw in their plan. Even if they force a government shutdown, the defunding plan still suffers from the same flaw and will only succeed in raising the cost of failure for Republicans and Obamacare opponents.
Don’t believe me? Let’s try a little thought experiment.
Assume Sen. Cruz is successful in filibustering his own bill and the government shuts down. Then what? Pro- and anti-Obamacare forces will wage a public blame campaign in the press and over the airwaves. The anti-Obamacare side will be treated unfairly by the press, which will turn every sorrowful anecdote into a morality play where defunders are the villains.
Let’s also assume that Sen. Cruz’s defunding coalition succeeds in winning this campaign and reversing long-held public opinion during the shutdown, convincing Americans that recalcitrant Democrats are actually to blame.
Assume even further that Democrats somehow cry uncle and offer to negotiate with Republicans. Then what?
None of this changes the numbers in the Senate. Democrats still control that body and Obama still wields a veto pen. Will Sen. Cruz stand in the way of a compromise if Democrats offer one? With Democrats offering to negotiate how will defunders keep the pressure on?
Republicans only have 46 Senate votes at the moment. This means that somehow five Democrats would have to switch sides and vote with Republicans. Which Democrats are going to commit political hara kiri? There are several red- or purple-state Democrats who are vulnerable that defunders could target, but what is going to make them switch?
If Democratic senators switch and support Obamacare defunding they would be effectively ending their Senate careers. Conservative voters in their states won’t vote for these turncoats in 2014, and neither will liberal ones. Their own party will abandon them and they may even face a Democratic primary opponent. What can defunders offer these doomed Democrats to make them switch sides?
Assume though that Sen. Cruz defies the odds yet again and secures five Democratic senators and the defunding bill passes Congress. How do defunders force Obama to destroy his namesake reform? Obama can’t serve another term and has a deep cache of goodwill with American voters. Where will the pressure come from? If Obama vetoes the defunding bill even Sen. Cruz’s hypothetical coalition can’t override him.
The President has nothing to lose but his legacy and his remaining political strength by acceding to Sen. Cruz and the defunders. What will he gain by giving in? Are we to think that emboldened Republicans will suddenly leave a severely weakened Obama alone? Hardly.
So how do the defunders square the circle? There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of answers. Without such an endgame one wonders why Sen. Cruz and his allies would even start down this road.
Matt Cover is Content Editor at Rare. Follow him on Twitter @MattCover