It’s not exactly a secret that Senator Ted Cruz and his staff have gotten under the skin of many of his fellow Republicans. In the course of trying to rally more GOP senators to join his effort to stop ObamaCare by going to the brink with Democrats over funding the government, Cruz said most of his caucus was “scared” to challenge the president. He was probably right about that, since they think his proposal is a suicide mission. But the Texas senator’s aides have gone even further. As Politico reported, “Cruz’s chief of staff is lambasting fellow conservatives like Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn for serving in the ‘surrender caucus.’ His top political strategist has compared Mitch McConnell to Barack Obama.” But Cruz’s merry crew isn’t alone. Rush Limbaugh told Fox News yesterday that he thought the leadership of the Republican Party had “capitulated” to the Democrats and spent more time fighting the Tea Party than the president.
If this strikes objective observers as strange, it should. While Cruz and Limbaugh are speaking of the GOP leadership as a pack of quislings, the White House’s chief talking point for the past three years has been the accusation that the same group is a bunch of relentless partisans who have spared no effort in order to sabotage the president’s liberal agenda. Even if we concede that there is a fair amount of hyperbole in both points of view, there’s no question that the rebellion on the right represents a genuine threat to the party. With the GOP already split on immigration and national security issues such as the NSA metadata collection, the willingness of figures like Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and even more significantly, Marco Rubio, to embrace a far more confrontational position than either House Speaker Boehner or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell creates the impression that this is growing into a serious problem for the party that could potentially impact its future ability to govern.
Those concerns are not without foundation, but those seeking to bury the GOP as hopelessly split are making a mistake. What’s going on this week may be troubling for Republicans, but it is as much a function of divided government as it is an ideological chasm between the so-called establishment and the firebrands. What the party of Lincoln is experiencing is nothing more than the usual headaches of the party whose opponents are in possession of the White House.
As much as the media is rightly covering Ted Cruz’s taunting campaign, it would be inaccurate to describe Republicans as being any more divided than are Democrats. On almost all of these issues, Democrats have their own splits, including some that are every bit as bitter as those that afflict the GOP. But the lack of interest in those arguments is not just a function of liberal media bias. It’s primarily due to the fact that, for better or worse, the Democratic Party has a single, preeminent leader while Republicans don’t. That’s what happens when you lose presidential elections.
The Republican problem is not a lack of courage. McConnell has done his best to harass the Democratic majority and the president. While Speaker Boehner can’t simply wage guerrilla warfare, he, too, has sought to thwart the White House’s agenda. But without a unified leadership (something that is only possible when you have a president and even then it is not a given) and single agenda, there will always be room for dissidents to accuse those in charge of not being tough enough.
As for the government shutdown, I agree with all of those, like our Pete Wehner, who say the strategy is a loser. Going to the brink won’t stop ObamaCare and claiming that those who understand this are chickens is juvenile. But what Cruz and Rush are tapping into is the frustration of the party faithful who wonder why the party’s leaders can’t just say no to Obama and shut the monster they hate down. In the absence of a sign that Republicans share this frustration, they look to create artificial and generally meaningless distinctions between a largely imaginary establishment and a cadre of true believers.
It would be far easier for Republicans to do as Cruz wishes if they didn’t control the House. Minorities can afford to be irresponsible and to vote their consciences without caring about its impact on the nation. While some in the grass roots really wouldn’t mind a government shutdown (neither would President Obama, who rightly thinks it would be a public-relations disaster for the GOP), what they really need is a sign their congressional leaders have an alternative and are willing to fall on their swords for the sake of principle. They want inspiration as much as they crave Democratic destruction.
Talk of Republicans surrendering to Obama is absurd. But instead of just getting mad at Cruz and fuming over Limbaugh’s statements, the Republican leaders need to be crafting a message to their own supporters that takes this frustration into account. Simply harrumphing at Cruz’s bumptiousness won’t address a problem that can, at best, be managed rather than solved until they win back the White House.