Commentary Magazine


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Shutdown Would Be Crazy But Cruz Isn’t

The genius of Senator Ted Cruz’s push to have Republicans defund the implementation of ObamaCare is that even those members of his party who have denounced the idea as madness would probably like to do it. Cruz is saying Republican bigwigs who have rejected his effort are “scared.” He’s 100-percent right about that. They are scared out of their wits about the prospect of another confrontation with the Democrats in which they would be depicted as playing chicken with the health of the nation’s economy by taking a stand that, for all intents and purposes, would amount to a government shutdown if they didn’t get their way on spiking ObamaCare. But the question is whether they are right to be.

Cruz represents the issue here as one pitting career politicians (everybody who doesn’t agree with the junior senator from Texas) and those who have put principle above the desire to get along. If it were that simple, there would be no excuse for House Republicans not to pass a continuing resolution funding the entire government but excluding ObamaCare and for at least 41 Republican senators to line up to prevent any Democratic effort to pass a budget that included the president’s signature legislation. A last minute stand of this sort will only result in a standoff that will play right into Obama’s hands and do nothing to stop the implementation of the program. Indeed, it’s what the president has hoped Republicans would do in every fiscal impasse of the last two years. So what’s wrong with an attempt to rally the troops for a glorious last stand on the issue? The answer to that question tells us all we need to know about the divide in the Republican Party.

As a practical matter, Cruz’s tactic doesn’t have much chance of succeeding. Even if Republicans stand together on this—something that is almost certainly not going to happen—success would depend on President Obama blinking before House Speaker John Boehner in negotiations to resolve the standoff. Obama would not only have no problem with such an impasse, he would actively encourage it since it would validate all of his excuses for the failure of his administration to accomplish much since his first two years in office. The plain fact is that with control of only the House with the Democrats still in firm control of the Senate and the White House, there is only so much the GOP can do. The last chance to stop ObamaCare was lost when Chief Justice John Roberts inexplicably voted to affirm its constitutionality, and nothing can alter that fact.

But the problem with letting wiser heads prevail over Cruz’s idealistic fervor is that it is much easier, as well as more appealing, to–as he keeps saying over and over–take a stand that is based purely on principle.

So the argument here is not so much about the efficacy of the tactic as it is one about philosophy: is it the purpose of a political party to help government function properly or to stand up for its ideas?

The answer is obviously both. Republicans can’t pretend they have no responsibility to keep the engine of government functioning since its basic functions such as providing for the common defense or paying our debts is vital. Yet a party that is so immersed in the Washington power game that it is immune to the appeal of ideology is not one that serves its voters well either. That’s why those Republicans who oppose Cruz (who has been joined in this effort by Mike Lee and Marco Rubio) should actually be listening to him.

Cruz has been a bull in a china shop throughout his first seven months in office and many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle can’t stand him. The argument against him is that such a confrontational approach won’t allow anything to get done, and since the talking heads are always telling us Americans want politicians to compromise, Cruz is impeding the will of the people. But given the train wreck that ObamaCare has become, surely it makes sense for Republicans to do what any effective legislative minority has always done: wage a fierce guerrilla war to make it difficult if not impossible for the administration to have its way on the issue.

The problem with Cruz’s critics is not that they are wrong about the foolishness of a government shutdown, but that many of them really are scared of the administration. You don’t have to want another shutdown to understand that a lot of the reaction to him is more about his abhorrence of the close-knit establishment club that the Senate has become than it is about his particular ideas. While a quixotic charge at ObamaCare won’t work, the GOP is wrong to dismiss the spirit that is behind this impulse. Party leaders who wonder about his popularity among the rank and file should understand that for all of his faults, he has tapped into something that ordinary Americans want in their politicians: a willingness to take risks on behalf of the principles he campaigned on.