What the Ted Cruz Spectacle is All About

The would-be presidential candidate is cementing his leadership by telling his political base exactly what it wants to hear.

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Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Senator Ted Cruz exits the floor of the Senate after speaking for more than 21 hours in opposition to the Affordable Care Act in Washington, D.C., Sept. 25 2013.

This isn’t the idealism of ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

It isn’t as dark as “House of Cards,” either.

So how about settling on something lighter, like say, “Animal House,” in which the dean famously says, “The time has come for someone to put his foot down. And that foot is me.”

And so it goes with Sen. Ted Cruz, at least when it comes to killing Obamacare. The first-term GOP Texan is the self-appointed executioner of a law Republicans despise. But truth be told, it’s hard to figure out exactly what Cruz’s faux filibuster on the Senate floor last night was really about. He’s against big, bad Obamacare, we get it. Only he was asking Senate Republicans to vote against something that would actually kill Obamacare. Huh?

Nevermind. None of this has been about reality. Rather, it’s about cementing a new definition of leadership: Positioning yourself as the spokesman for your political base by telling it exactly what it wants to hear. In Cruz’s case, it’s the tea party base. Lucky for him, there’s a made-for-TV bully pulpit, plenty of time to talk and the talking points are easy and oh, so, predictable.

Consider this sound bite extraordinaire: “This is a fight to restore freedom to the people,” says Cruz, clearly not inhibited by any lack of self-importance. “This is a fight to get the Washington establishment, the empire, to listen to the people.”

Not exactly Abraham Lincoln, but it’s a whammy of a bite. In it, Cruz gets to cuddle the tea party while taking on the evil establishment — and by that he means the awful folks in his own party who would not shut down the government over a doomed move to kill Obamacare. Imagine that: Republicans refusing to catapult a man they don’t like into the presidential arena.

Maybe they’re part of Cruz’s evil establishment, but if they are, they’re trying to save him — and the party — from itself on the issue of shutting down the government. Cruz is thinking 2016, but they’re thinking about the repercussions for the GOP if the government shuts down.

While some polls show that two-thirds of tea party sympathizers are just fine with a shutdown over health care reform, a majority of independent voters are not. And last time I checked, those are the folks whom the GOP needs to win over if its going to win the White House. But I digress.

Right now, Cruz has divided the Republican Party in a Palinesque way, only worse because he is an actual senator with actual authority who could have an actual presidential candidacy.

“We have been beaten up by his so-called grassroots movement back home. They pound us with ads, we hear about what he wants at town halls. We don’t like Obamacare, either. But there’s another way to go about this,” says a senior House Republican. “He [Cruz] won one primary in a red state in a Republican year, and now he’s busy running for president.”

Oh, and by the way, he adds, “he’s all about raising money. And doing it at our expense.”

Why is it at the GOP’s expense? Because Republicans are now afraid of being challenged from the right in primaries. They’re not worried about their Democratic opponents; they’re worried about the opponents on their right whom, many believe, Cruz would support and throw them under the bus. They’re against Obamacare, but are they against it enough?

“He’s a demagogue-and-a-half,” complains the House Republican. “This is not what you do to your teammates.”

Ah, but that’s the crux of it all: Cruz doesn’t need a team. He’s got the floor to himself. And he’s got the people, right?

That is, until he doesn’t.