Ted Cruz, Leninist

Critics think the Tea Party senator is being self-defeating, but his antics make sense if he's actually trying to remake the Republican Party in his image.
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Jason Reed/Reuters

What's Ted Cruz up to? Is he a political idiot or a political savant?

Many people have argued that his antics, however well designed to appeal to the Tea Party and the Republican-primary voting base, also seem equally well designed to anger his Republican colleagues in Congress, "establishment" Republicans, and organs of opinion like the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and, perhaps more important, big business and big-money donors whose support Cruz will need if he runs for president in 2016. And what he is doing won't stop Obamacare. So it seems like his strategy of alienating his colleagues in the Senate is doomed to failure and he is just being intransigent for the hell of it.

But let's suppose Cruz sees something (or is betting on something) that his opponents in the Republican Party don't see. Then his actions make a lot more sense. He is not a terrorist or a bomb thrower. He is a Leninist. He wants to sow discord among his erstwhile allies so that he can seize control.

Suppose you thought that the Republican coalition is fracturing, that traditional Republican leadership can no longer hold the party together, and that the leadership is too willing to capitulate to its political opponents on the left.

Suppose you are also convinced that Obamacare will be a total disaster. Once in place, constituencies will form that will make it difficult to repeal, yet it will make most ordinary Americans deeply unhappy. Obamacare will be the big-government equivalent of crystal meth: an addictive substance that destroys your health. When the public finally realizes this, it will abandon the Democrats in droves and look for an alternative. 

If you think both these things are true, then what Ted Cruz is doing makes some sense. Cruz wants to take over the Republican Party. He could try to organize the Tea Party as a third party, but that is a risky proposition, and it could easily fail. Representational systems like the one we have in the United States, which lack proportional representation, are generally unkind to third parties. It's true that the Whig Party fell apart in the early 1850s and was succeeded by the Republican Party, but since that time no third party has won a majority of either house of Congress or the presidency.

So the prudent move is to take over the existing GOP's operations and transform it in the image of the Tea Party, with the goal of becoming the dominant party once again. That is why Cruz is attacking his fellow Republicans for being weak-kneed and insufficiently devoted to the conservative cause, rather than doing what you would think a hard-right politician should be doing -- attacking liberals and Democrats. He is deliberately fracturing the Republican Party so he can take hold of the largest piece of it.

In some sense this is a repeat of the conservative movement's playbook from 1964 on: Push moderates out of the Republican Party and make it a wholly owned subsidiary of the conservative movement. As George W. Bush would say, Mission Accomplished. The moderates are mostly gone. George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole would be RINOs today. Even Ronald Reagan would have to be sent to a re-education camp to extinguish his dangerously liberal tendencies toward raising taxes and nuclear disarmament. The “mainstream conservatives” the press talks about today are a misnomer. Mainstream conservatives aren't moderate at all -- they are very, very conservative in relation to the Republicans of days gone by. What distinguishes "mainstream" Republicans is that they are not much interested in what they see as the Tea Party's suicide mission.

Enter Cruz. He sees that what is now called the Tea Party has actually been gaining dominance in the Republican Party for some time. He also notes that the Tea Party increasingly controls the primaries and that elected Republicans are more afraid of being attacked in a primary on their right than on their left. Thus, he notes that the wing of the party he wants to lead increasingly has the other parts of the party cowed. He likes that. He likes it a lot.

This brand of no-holds-barred conservatism is losing a few voters at the margins, but so what? Once these squishes are gone, the Tea Party can exert even greater control over the more ideologically pure remnant, which will be known as -- wait for it -- the Republican Party. Cruz plans to be the political leader of that party. Then, when Obamacare runs aground -- as Cruz and every other true believer knows it will -- the people will come begging for a savior. The savior will be none other than Ted Cruz, the man who literally stood up to Obamacare and made opposition to it his signature issue.

Clever, no?

Of course, no plan is foolproof, especially a revolutionary plan. Things can go wrong. Cruz may have miscalculated about Obamacare. It might turn out to be more popular than he thinks. (That's why it's important to sabotage it in every way possible.)

He may also guess wrong about the direction of history. By accelerating discord within the Republican Party, he may be undermining the country's best chance at conservative governance for years to come. Cruz and his friends could be like the New Left, attacking old-style liberals and setting fire to the Democratic Party in the hopes of fashioning a more radically left Democratic Party out of its ashes.

That strategy didn't turn out very well. In fact, that may be the best way to understand Ted Cruz. After a long period of conservative dominance, he wants even more. He's a bit like the political radicals in the 1960s and 1970s who made life miserable for centrist liberals like Hubert Humphrey and, later, Jimmy Carter, because they were quite certain that they could fashion a more ideologically pure Democratic Party that would lead America into a brighter future. They didn’t know that a tsunami was about to hit them from the right, sending them into the political wilderness for many years.

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Jack M. Balkin is the Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School, and the founder and director of Yale's Information Society Project.

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