The Man in the Arena

During his first year in the U.S. Senate, Ted Cruz has proved that he can throw a punch (and take one), rally his troops (and unite his enemies), and become the most influential freshman in Congress (if not the most reviled). The question is, Does that strategy lead to victory or defeat?

that, Cruz included, so even if they were getting spooked now, that didn’t mean the defunding strategy had been viable then.  

“We’re talking two weeks, though,” Cruz said. “Not that much has changed in the last two weeks.”

I disagreed. As he had noted about a minute earlier, what had happened in the last two weeks was that millions of Americans had started experiencing actual problems with the Affordable Care Act.  

Ye-e-es,” he said, and sighed. “My point is, the more Obamacare goes into effect, the more people see it isn’t working.” 

For some reason that exchange stuck with me, and later I thought it over. Cruz had gone out of his way to tell me that he was feeling vindicated. But it wasn’t because he had publicly predicted some of the effects of the Affordable Care Act. Cruz was feeling vindicated about the strategy. His rebuke was only for the Republicans who had scoffed at it and thereby, in his view, doomed the effort. I wasn’t convinced, because Cruz had never really addressed Coburn’s objection: even if the Senate had voted to defund the Affordable Care Act, President Obama could have vetoed that bill. On the other hand, the last time Cruz tried something that everyone else thought was crazy, he ended up winning a seat in the Senate. And then, too, I remembered: battles are won before they’re fought by choosing the terrain on which they’re fought.

In recent years the Republican Party, around the country, has been a noticeably dyspeptic coalition of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, tea partiers, and libertarians. The 2016 presidential primary will therefore be a battle over the direction of the party as much as the nomination. The establishment would like to see a nominee who can bridge the party’s internal divisions and swing votes in the general election, like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Jeb Bush. Many Republican primary voters, however, will hold out for a candidate committed to their key concerns. The Republican base isn’t looking for crossover appeal, it’s looking for someone who will fight for the cause.

Which explains why leading the polarizing and seemingly self-destructive battle to defund the Affordable Care Act may prove to have been a shrewd move on Cruz’s part. For a Republican who may have his eye on the 2016 presidential primary, having been the last man in the arena fighting against Obamacare is a pretty good campaign credential. Things haven’t changed that much since the 2012 Senate campaign: the law is unpopular with Republican primary voters. And, significantly, no other issue is equally unpopular with the various factions of the Republican coalition. 

By making this his central issue, Cruz has won over conservative activists. At the same time, he hasn’t necessarily implicated himself in something that moderates can never forgive. Many of Cruz’s Republican colleagues in Congress derided his defunding strategy, but not a single one of them voted for the law in the first place. At the end of the day, it wasn’t just the tea party that was leery of the Affordable Care Act. If the law represents a major and potentially transformative expansion of America’s safety net, it also represents a major and potentially transformative expansion of government power. 

There were certainly moments last year when the situation seemed to have gotten out of Cruz’s control, and at the end of the year, polling, in Texas and around the country, showed him to be an unusually controversial figure. No national politician was more popular with the tea party, but Democrats disapproved of Cruz, as did most self-described independents; even moderate Republicans were dubious. On the other hand, Cruz has five years left in a six-year term, and 2016 is almost three years away. And if he does decide to run for president, the skepticism of the moderates might turn out to be a strangely valuable asset. 

Since the rise of the tea party movement, Republican activists have been on the lookout for signs of latent moderation. Even the incumbents who have always been considered conservative are suddenly coming under scrutiny. It happened to Rick Perry: during his ill-fated campaign for the 2012 presidential nomination, the longest-serving governor in Texas history was taken to task for minor doctrinal lapses, like the fact that he had signed the state’s 2001 law authorizing in-state tuition for certain undocumented students. It’s happening in this year’s Republican primaries. In December Steve Stockman, a tea party congressman from Houston, announced a primary challenge to “the liberal John Cornyn”—Texas’ senior senator, who had, in 2012, posted the second-most-conservative voting record in the Senate, according to a ranking by the National Journal.

An irony is that if not for the fight against Obamacare, Cruz could have been vulnerable to such purity tests too. He is clearly more focused on fiscal issues than social ones, and he doesn’t use the economy as a proxy for the culture wars. He has repeatedly said that encouraging economic growth should be Congress’s number-one goal; that being the case, he’s disagreed with the party’s strictest budget hawks. “I think Republicans get their priorities wrong at times by focusing too much on austerity,” he told me in Houston. “As much as spending is out of control, given the choice between spending cuts and economic growth, I choose growth one hundred out of one hundred times.” He’s also chided Republicans for failing to reach out to the voters that Mitt Romney notoriously summarized as “the 47 percent” during the presidential campaign. “The top one percent in this country now have the highest share of our income since 1928, under President Obama. The rich do fine with government control of the economy. It’s not about them. It’s about everybody else.”

Similarly, Cruz’s central argument against the Affordable Care Act, in fact, has been that the law is stifling job creation; he wasn’t going around like Sarah Palin, warning that government medicine would lead to death panels. “From a conservative’s perspective,” he told me,

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