Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ted Cruz and the new face of the Republican Party

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Le Parti R├ępublicain, c'est moi.

If you've been following the Obamacare-debt ceiling-government shutdown drama playing out in Washington, you'll know, unless you've got your head up your ass like most Republicans, that it's pretty much a lose-lose-lose situation for the GOP.

Republicans will apparently do anything and everything to try to stop Obamacare -- they object to it on radical-right ideological grounds but also, less explicitly, because they know, or at least the smart ones do, that it will be a boon to Democrats at the polls for years to come -- and that means working aggressively to defund it by threatening a) to shut down the government or b) to block an increase to the debt ceiling. (Yes, they will risk immense hardship and even global economic armageddon to get what they want.)

The problem, for them, is that shutting down the government would be extremely unpopular (they would be hit with the blame for it, as they were in the '90s), while the markets and their own business base would react negatively, to say the least, were the country to find itself unable to pay off its debts. Republican establishmentarians like John Boehner know this and would like to rein in the extremists, but the extremists aren't that easily pacified, not least because the establishmentarians are responsible to a great extent for empowering them -- it's called reaping what you've sown. The establishment was more than happy to align itself with the teabaggers and others on the far right when it meant getting votes, but now it's stuck with a hugely powerful and, within the party, hugely popular base to which it must continue to pay its respects.

In any event, there's really no way out of this mess. Republicans have resorted to hostage-taking in the hopes that President Obama would cave, as he has before, but he stresses that he won't play that game this time around. And, really, he has all the leverage -- he just needs to remain firm. Whether it's a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government running or an increase to the debt ceiling, he'll get what he wants because ultimately Republicans will have to give in to avoid the wrath of the voters at the polls next year. In other words, it's give up the effort to defund Obamacare or commit electoral suicide. (Actually, though, there's no guarantee they'll act rationally and give in. Many of them seem prepared to fight to the bitter end.)

Meanwhile, though, we're finally seeing the Republican crack-up that many of us have been waiting for for so long. The divide, the civil war, isn't between the business conservatives and the theocrats, it's between the somewhat extremist conservatives in the establishment and the truly crazy extremists in the Tea Party and throughout the party's far-right, anti-government ideological base. In short, it's between the hapless and desperately obsequious John Boehner and the determined and supremely confident Ted Cruz. Ultimately, Boehner is better for the party and its future electoral hopes, but it's Cruz who has the wind in his sails right now.

And, indeed, what we're seeing now is Cruz setting himself up as the leader of the alternative to the establishment alongside the similarly extremist likes of Rand Paul (though without the stain of Paul's occasional heterodoxy), and indeed as a leader of the party generally. Cruz, a first-term senator, is even leading (in a way) the House Republican rebellion against Boehner, encouraging his allies to oppose the speaker's efforts to find a way out of the whole mess.

Where will it all lead? Republicans have a long history of internal division and strife (think back, for example, to Pat Buchanan's "pitchfork" rebellion in the early '90s), but given their lust for power and willingness to put aside their differences in order to get what they want they always seem to end up in jackbooted lockstep come election time. And that may well happen again in 2014.

But these divisions seem deeper and perhaps more damaging than usual. Now, it's not a renegade like Buchanan carving out some popularity for himself on the fringe, it's the party basically splitting apart into two warring factions, with the renegades having an even stronger claim to represent the base than the establishment, hence the establishment's ongoing efforts to appease the renegades. Indeed, it may not even be correct to call them renegades. Maybe Ted Cruz is the new face of the Republican Party, and maybe it's the John Boehners who find themselves on the fringe as the party moves ever further to the right.

To any Republican with an ability to think rationally -- and I realize there aren't many of them -- that should be an extremely worrisome thought.

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