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?

odd, in other words. But it was also a measure of how much attention Cruz had commanded and how much influence Washington thought, or feared, he had. 

A few hours later, the Senate had voted, the bill had passed, and default had been averted. Cruz remained, in most quarters, a pariah, and the personal attacks were still pouring in by the time I saw him in Houston a few days later. But even that afternoon Cruz didn’t seem subdued for long. If anything, he was defiant. “Where the plan went awry was in step three,” he told me. “Unfortunately, we failed to unify Senate Republicans. And indeed, a number of Senate Republicans made the decision not only to not stand with the House Republicans but to actively, aggressively, vocally attack the House Republicans and lead the charge to stop the efforts to defund Obamacare.” He was dismissive of the suggestion that Senate Republicans who opposed the defunding campaign had merely disagreed on tactics. In his view, the alternative strategy they sometimes offered—winning the 2014 elections, with a view toward repealing the Affordable Care Act—was naive, if not disingenuous. Even if Republicans retake the Senate, he observed, Obama will still be president; there won’t be a Republican in the White House until 2017 at the earliest. “At that point,” he asked, “does anyone realistically think there’s any prospect of unwinding the damage Obamacare has done after it has been implemented?” 

Later that month, when we were leaving the little office in the Capitol, Cruz paused at the door, as if he had just thought of something. I hadn’t asked about the Affordable Care Act at all that day, but he evidently had a few parting thoughts about it. “We’ve been having conversations throughout this battle over Obamacare,” he began, “and it is interesting, at times, to see the vindication of subsequent events.” 

With the debt ceiling drama resolved for the time being, the news had been focused on the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, which was going about as poorly as possible, and Cruz cited three developments from the previous week. First, some two million Americans had been told they would have to find new health insurance; second, the Obama administration had known, despite the president’s assurances to the contrary, that people who were happy with their current insurance wouldn’t necessarily be able to keep it; and third, a number of Senate Democrats had broken with the White House to call for various delays or changes to the law. 

“There’s a rich irony in that,” Cruz said. “Just a couple of weeks ago, almost every voice in establishment Washington described those of us leading the fight against Obamacare as radical, crazy, and delusional to suggest that the Democrats would ever, ever, ever go along with anything like delaying Obamacare. Two weeks later, ten Democrats are.”

I was skeptical. The Democrats in question, I argued, were reacting to the federal government’s catastrophically buggy website. No one had anticipated 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

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