Senator Ted Cruz is the darling of the Republican base these days. Though most observers on both sides of the aisle consider the government shutdown he helped engineer to have been a disaster for his party, many conservatives love the fact that he was willing to fight the president and the Democrats to the last ditch on ObamaCare. Some even believe his claim that had everyone in the GOP drunk the Kool-Aid he was handing out in the Capitol, the tactic would have succeeded even if there is no rational reason to think so. More importantly, many think that any Republican who warned that the shutdown was a dumb tactic without a chance of success is a RINO traitor and part of the problem in Washington to which the Texas freshman is the only solution.
This Cruz-inspired schism seems to be the main topic for discussion about the Republican Party these days, and made the Texan’s visit to Iowa this past weekend to give a speech a matter of more than passing political interest. His appearance in the first-in-the-nation caucus state highlighted the traction he has gained among Tea Partiers, and Cruz continued to milk it with barbed comments that were aimed just as much at less militant Republicans than they were at Obama and the Democrats. But when Rick Santorum called out Cruz on Meet the Press for hurting the party more than he helped it with the shutdown, it’s time to admit there is more going on in the GOP right now than a simple split between the Tea Party and the so-called party establishment.
Just a year and a half ago Santorum was leading the opposition to the establishment in the Republican presidential primaries. Though he failed to stop the Mitt Romney juggernaut, the long-shot candidate won Iowa and several other primaries and caucuses on his way to being the runner-up in the GOP race. Santorum clearly hopes to try again in 2016 and that explains, at least in part, his willingness to criticize a potential opponent like Cruz.
But in doing so, he illustrated that there are more than just two factions within the GOP. Cruz may be the leading spokesman for the Tea Party critique of Washington Republicans’ inability to defeat ObamaCare and the rest of the liberal project. But Santorum’s ability to tap into working-class resentments of a party that seems at times to be dominated by big business as well as his ability to speak for social conservatives should remind us that there are elements in the party outside of Capitol Hill or K Street that are not solely motivated by Cruz’s concerns about small government.
Of course, there is a great deal of overlap between Santorum’s core constituency and those who are attracted to Cruz. The same can also be said of many of the Republicans who supposedly fall into the category of establishment supporters because of their disdain for the shutdown strategy. Almost all Republicans these days want smaller government and oppose ObamaCare. But it needs to be understood that many of those who were appalled at the party’s embrace of a big-business establishment-type figure like Romney are not necessarily going to jump on Cruz’s bandwagon or accept his single-minded tactics that brand anyone who isn’t ready to follow him into every fight, no matter how quixotic, as a closet liberal.
Santorum’s dogged social conservatism seems the antithesis of the belief of a RINO, but even he understood that the gap between what he conceded was Cruz’s “laudable” goal of eliminating ObamaCare and a coherent plan to accomplish it was huge.
Moreover, Santorum reminded Republicans that the notion that Cruz is the face of the Republican Party today is laughable.
Unlike the Democratic Party, which has the president, there isn’t a leader in the Republican Party right now. That’s part of the reason for the mess and the confusion in the party. But that’s always the way it is with a party out of power. You have lots of different faces and those faces, as we’ve seen, they come and they go.
Santorum is hoping that his time as a leading Republican isn’t in the past tense, but we won’t know that for sure until we see whether his brand of religious conservatism can hold its own against that of Cruz, Rand Paul, or even Marco Rubio or Chris Christie. But while the latter may be the stand-in for Romney for GOP voters, the others will be battling each other for a share of the conservative vote.
The point here is not that Santorum or any of the other potential candidates can beat Cruz. Rather, the point to be gleaned from this exchange is that for all of Cruz’s recent notoriety, he is just one man in a party full of potential presidents with a variety of conservative constituencies rather than a mere standoff between Cruz’s rebels and the establishment. Those who think the only real story about the Republicans in the coming years is whether Cruz will lead a successful purge of all who opposed him are missing that.