Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ted Cruz's Scary Cornfield

Ted Cruz's Scary Cornfield

There is a classic Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life” which centers around the small farm town of Peeksville, Ohio, and Anthony, a malevolent small child possessed of nearly infinite power to read minds and alter matter.  When angered, Anthony can mutilate, transform, and destroy.   

Anthony’s terrified parents, and the few townspeople left, have no choice but to humor him.  Whatever he wants, no matter how unpleasant, elicits “It’s good Anthony, it’s real good.” After a particularly gruesome act, his parents beg him to take it away, to  “wish it into the cornfield.”

Rod Serling’s brilliance often lay in telling an improbable story that somehow resonated emotionally, causing us to recognize something in ourselves or the world around us that challenged or frightened. 

Anthony scares us.  He has no rules, no master, no boundaries, no experience, no need to rely on or please others.  He lives only to satisfy himself, and seems insensate to the pain he causes. 

Ted Cruz had another Anthony moment last week, causing a fair amount of discomfort to some of his Republican brethren.  On Tuesday, House Speaker Boehner, exhausted from trying to find any sweetener that would induce his caucus to vote out a suspension of the Treasury’s debt limit, finally took 27 other Republicans and joined with the Democrats to pass a clean bill. On Wednesday, Mitch McConnell prepared to let the Democrats, on a straight-line party vote, send it to the President for signature.  That is when Cruz decided to use his dark powers. 

Cruz’s maneuver was a simple one, but it had destructive consequences.  Under normal circumstances, when a particular bill, even a controversial one, clearly has enough support, and the result is not anathema to the losing party, there’s a certain amount of kabuki that comes into play.  A quick headcount determines how many votes are there for passage.  If there’s more than enough, then the Whips can let individual members vote their own local interests, even when they seemed to be bucking their party.  Alternatively, when the losing side wants to go on record as opposing, but not actually block the legislation, they can just let the vote happen.  Then the majority “owns the bill” and the losers can talk about how principled they were.  That, at least, was McConnell’s plan; Reid would bring the bill up, the Democrats would pass it, the nation would not default, and then everyone would go home.

Cruz, of course, would have none of it, and so he threatened a filibuster.  That forced a sixty-vote threshold for cloture, thereby making the bill impossible to pass without Republican support.  He was tearing away their fig leaf: unanimously voting against it while (mostly) silently supporting it. 

This caused chaos in the Republican caucus, because they were left with two unpalatable choices.  Either they could find five of their own to break the filibuster, allowing the final vote and passage.  Or, they could yield to Cruz, send the nation into default, and “own it.” The problem was that they didn’t have the five votes, or more accurately, they didn’t have five Senators willing to go on record.  This put McConnell in a real bind, because centrist Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (who had lost her own primary in 2010) were being asked to walk the plank for their more conservative brethren, and even counting those, there may not have been enough.  No Republican wanted to be the 60th vote and put a bulls-eye on their back.

What made things worse was that the GOP was out of time.  The House had already adjourned, so it was this bill, or no bill.  The GOP leadership huddled while the Democrats did something almost unprecedented—they stopped the public reading of the tally so as not to shake up the financial markets.  Cruz was apparently thrilled with himself, strutting around with a smirk on his face. McConnell and his leadership were furious, and, in the end, not five, but twelve Republicans, including McConnell and John Cornyn (minority whip) voted to cut off debate.  With the filibuster broken, all twelve then voted against suspending the debt ceiling.

But, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out in an editorial “The Minority Maker” the damage had been done.  Republicans could still blame the Democrats for the bill, but in truth, the Democrats didn’t “own it” anymore.  And, to compound things, activist groups aligned with Cruz then announced they would use this vote against McConnell and Cornyn in their 2014 primaries.  Ted Cruz, team player.

Why did Cruz do it? He says his motive was to force concessions from Mr. Obama and the Democrats.  But the real reason?  Because he wanted to, he could, and he enjoyed it.  And it furthers his ambitions. He wants to be President, sooner rather than later, and has decided that this is his moment.

Ted Cruz may be destructive, but he’s not stupid.  He’s looking to build a power base outside not only the Senate, but also the Republican establishment. And he knows he gets two bites at the apple, because Tea Party supporters essentially get to vote twice.  Tea-aligned “Cast-iron Conservatives” have shown substantial success in dominating GOP party functions like caucuses and nominating conventions.  They just show up and swamp the party regulars.  In pure primary states, their passion drives them to the polls and gives them an influence greater than their actual numbers.  Cruz can win a lot of states.  And, if the Tea Party itself decides to have a Presidential nominating convention, Cruz is well placed to take that nomination as well.  

What Cruz has discovered is that he doesn’t have to play nice, and that suits him. If he wants a sympathetic ear, there are conservative media outlets providing airtime at a moment’s notice. He has his own fundraising organization, and he doesn’t need anything that the Senate leadership can offer.  John Cornyn is already bringing in the bucks, so Texas isn’t going to get more (or less) because of Cruz.  As for committee memberships, Cruz isn’t really interested in the hard work of legislating.  In fact, the opposite is true—the more he gums things up, the more committed his supporters are. 

Can he be stopped?  Maybe.  The real fear of the Wall Street Journal and GOP insiders is that Cruz will continue to be a disrupter, and the blame for the disruption will fall on them.  The message they want to put out in 2014 and 2016 is that Mr. Obama has been a poor President and everyone hates Obamacare. That line has real potential to resonate, but only if the GOP demonstrates it is the adult ready to govern.  Shutdowns and defaulting tell a different story.  Cruz’s closed fist might sell to an angry mob, but it’s a hard strategy to take nationally.

That being said, I think that Cruz is playing his hand shrewdly.  In an atomized primary season, there is a path to the nomination for someone who can consolidate his strength, no matter how he does it.  If he succeeds, the party establishment will get in line.  And if he wins the Presidency, he surely will have a Republican House and Senate, where many agree with much of his philosophy, if not his tactics. In short, he doesn’t need them to say “It’s good, Ted, it’s real good.” 

So, is it possible we will see a Cruz Administration in 2017?  Still a long shot, but possible.   

Scary thought.  Wish it into the cornfield, please.  Wish it into the cornfield.

Michael Liss  (Moderate Moderator)

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