How to Explain the Rise of Ted Cruz

When polarization turns governing into constant war, ideological warriors find themselves in demand.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: U.S Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) leaves the Capitol after he spoke on the Senate floor for more than 21 hours September 25, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Sen. Cruz ended his marathon speech against the Obamacare at noon on Wednesday.  (Getty Images)

Anyone remember back to February when Time magazine anointed Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio as the GOP's "savior" on its cover? Seven months later, it's Rubio's Cuban-American Texas doppelganger, Sen. Ted Cruz, who has grabbed the party's attention — or, more precisely, seized its throat.

Cruz's success in eclipsing the Florida Republican shows how the GOP current has shifted on both means and ends since President Obama's reelection. Rubio's moment came when he spearheaded GOP negotiations with Senate Democrats over immigration reform. That's an issue designed to reach Hispanic and other minority voters beyond the GOP's traditional coalition.

Cruz has ascended through unstinting confrontation with Democrats and even fellow Republicans, most ferociously over blocking Obama's health care law. Unlike immigration, that's a cause that most excites the GOP base — and will likely further alienate Hispanics (who would disproportionately benefit from expanding coverage).

Cruz's rise offers more evidence that a climate of polarization in Congress inexorably tends to empower each party's ideological vanguard against its center. Polarization undercuts congressional centrists, who exert influence by finding compromises and closing deals. But centrists can't deliver either outcome when the parties are committed to perpetual conflict. When legislation is constant war, parties tend to seek leadership from warriors. Enter Cruz.

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.

The recent liberal uprising that sank Lawrence Summers's potential appointment as Federal Reserve Board chairman suggests Democrats are not immune to these centrifugal pressures. If Hillary Rodham Clinton runs in 2016, the most tempting opening against her would be for a populist offering sharper confrontation, not only against the GOP but also Wall Street, big business, and the rich. Clinton would remain favored against any rival, but if Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts thundered into that role, she would likely give the front-runner some sleepless nights.

Cruz, if he runs in 2016, promises the same for any GOP candidate resistant to his conception of total war. Veteran party strategists caution that Republican primary voters have historically flirted with warriors like Cruz but gone home with nominees (think Bob Dole or Mitt Romney) who promise to redirect government, not annihilate the opposition. The open question is whether that history still applies in a Republican Party increasingly whipsawed by the bottomless alienation of conservatives convinced that Obama and the urbanized, racially diverse coalition supporting him are sweeping away the America they have known.

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