In the near term, Cruz and his allies in the kamikaze caucus besieging Obama's health care law have little chance to succeed, no matter how long Cruz holds the Senate floor. Too many congressional Republicans recognize that the party lacks the leverage to force Obama to renounce his signature achievement and believe that the weapons that Cruz and like-minded House Republicans would wield against the president — defunding the government or defaulting on the federal debt — are the political equivalent of a suicide bomb.
And yet it's undeniable that since last fall, momentum in the party has flowed toward the vision shared by Cruz and House conservatives: The GOP road to revival demands unbending confrontation with Obama and an unalloyed conservative message focused on shrinking government in 2016. That's almost a complete reversal of the dominant impulse immediately after Obama's reelection, which marked the fifth time in the past six presidential elections that Democrats had won the popular vote. At that point, the GOP's loudest faction argued that Obama's victory showed the party needed to reach beyond its graying base of conservative, mostly older, whites.
No one would ever confuse Rubio with a moderate, but the conviction that the party needed a broader reach provided the tailwind for his rocketing postelection rise. Although Rubio would never phrase it this way, his embrace of legislation that included a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants here illegally came to symbolize the acknowledgment that the GOP could not rebuild a majority coalition without reconsidering some of its long-held beliefs.
The rise of Cruz and the kamikaze caucus reflects precisely the opposite. Their strategy assumes, against formidable evidence, that the traditional Republican base remains a national majority — if it can be inspired to turn out by way of undiluted conservative arguments expressed through unflinching confrontation against Democrats.
That vision has electrified conservative activists and interest groups and steamrolled over the hesitations of GOP congressional leaders dubious about the tactics (if not the goals) this movement is demanding. It's revealing that Rubio, ever since the immigration debate, has seemed in a breathless race to reconcile with the Right; he pointedly stood at Cruz's side this week.
The force of this wave virtually guarantees that congressional conservatives will impose on the party a procession of confrontations against Obama through his second term. And that will compel all Republicans, including the 2016 contenders, to repeatedly choose between a conservative base demanding they rush the battlements and polls showing most Americans resist scorched-earth tactics such as shuttering the government or defaulting on the debt. In this current round, while Rubio has aligned with Cruz, Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin and (intriguingly) Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have mostly distanced themselves from his charge.