Over the past couple of days, as I’ve watched Ted Cruz capture the political world’s attention and drive the GOP’s self-defeating strategy on the budget and the debt limit, I’ve tried to think about what is the best metaphor to describe his extraordinary political rise – from freshman Texas senator to ideological lodestar of the Republican party.
Is he a modern-day version of George Wallace (in Gary Younge’s analogy)? Is he Elmer Gantry? Is he Frankenstein?
No, he’s the Republican’s Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
For those not familiar with the reference, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is “the form of the destructor” in the 1983 film, Ghostbusters. He seems harmless. After all, it’s a giant marshmallow with a jaunty sailor’s cap. But in reality, he is a 60ft anthropomorphized destroyer, who is chosen (inadvertently) to wage the movie’s final showdown between the forces of good (the ghostbusters) and the forces of bad (Gozer).
Now, in the end of the movie everything works out for the best and everyone lives happily ever after (except, unfortunately, for those who paid to see Ghostbusters II). Things, however, are unlikely to work out so well for the Republican party.
For Cruz, on the other hand, capitalizing on the GOP’s descent into madness is a deft political move that positions him well to be a clear frontrunner to win the party’s presidential nod in 2016.
Over the past several decades, Republicans have cultivated the party’s most reactionary, uncompromising and extremist base of supporters. They have portrayed government as a deeply nefarious and destructive force; they have fetishized ideological rigidity; they have derided and demonized compromise of any sort; they have destroyed the party’s moderate wing and even drove conservatives out of the party for not being conservative enough.
Things are so bad that Liz Cheney is taking on incumbent Mike Enzi for the Senate seat in Wyoming. The reason for the primary challenge: he’s not obstructionist enough and has committed the sin of actually talking with Democrats in the US Senate. That such a challenge would come after a period in which Congress entered a new stratosphere of dysfunction and uselessness is practically unimaginable. But alas, here we are.
Of course, when it comes to Obama, the GOP’s rhetoric has been turned up to “11“. Republicans have played on the fears of those who believe Obama is a socialist, Muslim, or a proud native son of Kenya. They have decried his war on political freedom; his war on gun rights; his war on business; his war on the middle class; his war on the nation’s future generations; and his surrender to foreign tyrants. And they have portrayed his policies as a fast train to America’s destruction – none more so than his signature legislation, Obamacare.
Since 2009, Republicans have practically fallen over themselves to describe a plan to provide health insurance coverage for 30 million people and lower healthcare costs as “the worst thing ever to happen to America”.
According to Republicans, Obamacare represents a government takeover of the healthcare system (it’s not); it was passed in violation of the will of the American people (it wasn’t); it covers illegal immigrants (it doesn’t, but it should); it will put government bureaucrats in charge of your healthcare decision (it won’t); it is already causing widespread job losses (it’s not) and will destroy the economy (it won’t).
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, calls it the “single worst piece of legislation passed in the last 50 years”. Congressman John Fleming – a Louisiana Republican – went even further, describing Obamacare as “the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed in Congress”, and “the most existential threat” to the US economy “since the Great Depression”. The House of Representatives has now voted more than 40 times to repeal the bill and is actively working to sabotage the law.
Conservatives are even running a creepy series of ads encouraging young people to eschew Obamacare and subsidized healthcare coverage, which, it must be said, is one of the more morally depraved activities that this country has seen from a major political group in some time. But in the GOP jihad against Obamacare, this sort of action is par for the course.
Indeed, opposition to Obamacare and the demand by Republicans – largely instigated by Cruz – that any budget or debt limit extension be tied to the defunding or delay of Obamacare has led to a possible government shutdown next week. It’s an act both destructive and unworkable. Obama is not going to sign a bill undercutting his signature legislation, and they’ll take the blame, which will be politically damaging.
So, why pursue this suicidal, self-defeating course? Enter Ted Cruz – the destructor.
Though many Republicans are wary, conservatives like Cruz have demanded this strategy – and have challenged the conservative bona fides of any who fail to get in line. A month ago, speaker of the House John Boehner was powerless to resist the crazies and finally relented, introducing legislation that tied the federal budget to a defunding of Obamacare.
This move led numerous Republicans to violate Ronald Reagan’s so-called “11th commandment” – “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” – as the two most senior GOP members have attacked Cruz. But none of this should be a surprise to them. Republicans have spent so much time describing Obamacare in the most dire terms imaginable, isn’t it completely consistent for some Republicans to take this rhetoric to its logical conclusion?
To be sure, Republicans will find their way out of this current mess, most likely by conceding defeat and passing a clean continuing resolution and debt limit extension. But that will only begin the intra-party bloodletting.
For conservatives like Cruz, who, in just nine months in office, has become a hero to the party’s base, it’s precisely this retreat that he is counting on. It will only strengthen his political message that the problem for Republicans is the cadre of sellouts like McConnell, Boehner et al who refuse to follow through on their conservative principles. For a politician like Cruz, who clearly has his eyes set on national office, defeat for the GOP on Obamacare will be his ultimate victory.
Indeed, we’ve seen repeatedly over the past two election cycles that the more radical a Republican is, the more likely he or she is to defeat a slightly less radical Republican in a Senate or House primary. This is actually how Cruz became a senator.
In the end, Republicans have no one to blame but themselves for their current crisis. Ted Cruz was created by Republicans who persistently ramped up the extremism of their attacks on government and on Obama. That reached a point where Cruz’s brand of crazy, heartless, morally wanton, uncompromising conservatism is now the default position of the party.
Unfortunately for Republicans, unlike the Ghostbusters, there is no escape from the monster they created.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
[Image via Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons-licensed]