What Explains Ted Cruz?

Between his 21-hour non-filibuster to halt Obamacare, his impassioned, hard-line speech at the right-wing Values Voters Summit, and his meeting with House Republicans at the mediocre Mexican joint, Tortilla Coast, it’s clear Ted Cruz has been conducting the shutdown train, even as the country heads into default and his party heads over a cliff. Just about every write-up of the man portrays a smart and opportunistic political mind, eager to be, as The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith puts it, “the Tea Party’s one true standard-bearer.” But is his strategy just crazy?

Pundits in Washington can’t decide what to make of it. At The Washington Post alone, you can find a number of conflicting opinions. Jonathan Capehart, for one, thinks Cruz is just like Sarah Palin. But he also thinks he’s deeply cynical. WaPo’s The Fix blog notes Cruz has hurt himself badly based on poll numbers. But the blog’s main writer, Chris Cilliza, also notes he’s set himself up perfectly for the 2016 presidential primary.

Cruz is obviously an enigma to Washington pundits, in part because he’s constantly coming through the looking glass—and going back again. It’s bound to make one’s vision blurry. To understand the senator's calculations and strategies, to grasp where he’s coming from, you have to look at, well, where he’s coming from.

Cruz may be a “wacko bird” in the U.S. Senate, but in Texas, he’s not even the most extreme member of the congressional delegation. In the past two weeks, Texas representatives have—just for starters—accused John McCain of working for al-Qaeda and berated a national park ranger for the World War II Memorial being shut down. (House Republicans evidently had nothing to do with it.) Representatives Louie Gohmert, Blake Farenthold, and Michael Burgess have all advocated for impeaching the president—as has Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, the man who was too "moderate" to defeat Cruz in their 2012 Senate primary. In many ways, this is just business as usual in the Lone Star State.

In Texas, the Tea Party increasingly is the Republican Party. The preferences of mainstream Americans—or even mainstream Republicans—simply don’t translate in this alternative reality. And it’s that same reality that many congressional Republicans are going home to; in ultra-red districts, the biggest challenges come from the right. Cruz now concerns himself with two groups operating in the same bubble—Texas Republicans and the congressional Tea Party caucus. He ignores the rest of the country and, probably more than anyone else, understands what kind of power that kind of strategy can yield. It’s what’s gotten him this far. 

His 2012 primary race is the stuff of legend. When he started off, Cruz’s mission to become a U.S. senator seemed nearly as wild-eyed as his current shutdown strategy. The primary was crowded with a number of unknowns, Cruz being one of them. Looming over everyone was David Dewhurst, the three-term lieutenant governor who had buckets of money, the Texas elite behind him, and a conservative track record that largely tracked with Governor Rick Perry’s—both economically, with lots of budget cuts, and socially, with restrictions on women’s health care and voter-ID laws.

Because of legal fights over redistricting, the GOP primary was delayed multiple times. Months passed, giving Cruz more time to go after Dewhurst, calling him an insider and accusing him of having a moderate track record. Cruz received major backing from national Tea Party groups and was lauded on the cover of National Review, while Dewhurst’s campaign flailed. The opposition’s negative ads only raised Cruz’s name recognition with voters. Dewhurst, even with backing from Perry’s team, failed to land a punch while Cruz didn’t stop hitting. In the end, Cruz forced Dewhurst into a runoff and beat him when they went head-to-head.

The takeaway was simple: Run to the right, eloquently state the Tea Party line, and don’t be afraid of going after anyone—Republicans included. The role of luck and the specifics of the state had little bearing. Cruz went to Washington already beloved by Tea Party supporters around the country, and that relationship has only grown.

Cruz is now dancing with them that brung him. Rather than listening to the D.C. chattering classes and their conventional wisdom, Cruz has forged his own path, largely through scorching the earth and only concerning himself with the opinion of the Tea Party. It’s paid dividends—as a freshman senator, he’s dominated the debate and made himself a household name. Last weekend, in the Values Voters Summit straw poll vote for 2016, Cruz won the presidential nod in a landslide, decisively beating out other Tea Party characters like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. If you live in the Cruz bubble, it must seem ridiculous to think that he should even consider changing course.

He has a point there: Unlike most of Washington, where plenty of onlookers are still convinced the Republican Party can extricate itself from the Tea Party, Cruz already knows the GOP desperately needs the Tea Party. The activists who back Cruz are the ones who vote consistently in GOP primaries, the ones who volunteer on campaigns, the ones who give the party energy.

But Cruz doesn’t know what he doesn’t know—and he doesn’t know a lot. Cruz has only been a politician in the Tea Party era. He’s only run in Texas, where the Republican Party reigns supreme and the vast majority of elections are decided in the GOP primary. The political "reality," as most people see it, has nothing to do with Cruz's appeal to the Tea Party base, or with his prospects for 2016. It’s what makes him such a powerful, and powerfully unsettling force in Washington.  

In his pursuit of power, Cruz has been notably unconcerned about the implications of his political tactics for the rest of his party or, for that matter, the rest of the global economy. Ted Cruz has gone a long way toward making himself the favored candidate of the Tea Party. And the Republicans are the Tea Party; anyone who doubted that prior to the Cruz-led shutdown certainly knows it now.

By playing with the fire of default and unabashedly pointing his finger at fellow Republicans, Cruz has deeply weakened the Grand Old Party. For better or for worse, the United States is not Texas, and while Republican dominance may be a given in one state, the party's national brand may soon be irreparably damaged—thanks largely to Cruz.

Right now, it seems Cruz doesn't care about any of that. From his vantage point inside his Tea Party Texas bubble, he’s leading the indispensable wing of an inevitable party. But if the party itself begins to crack, then Cruz will be in trouble.

Put another way, Cruz has made himself the captain of the USS Republican. Barring some unforeseen turn of events, the Tea Party won’t blame him no matter what happens—it'll love him all the more. The Texas delegation will likely continue to cheer for him as well. But the reality is already intruding into the bubble. Republicans are the most unpopular they’ve ever been, they're splitting apart, and they're losing the fiscal fight. If the ship takes on enough water, all the Tea Party and Texas love in the world won’t be enough to keep it from sinking.

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