Inside the Conservative Bubble, It Looks Like Ted Cruz Is Winning Big

Shutdown polling looks apocalyptic for the Republican Party, but at the Values Voters Summit, activists weren't ready to back down.

Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

Friday was a difficult day to wake up Republican in America. With the government shutdown entering its 11th day, a poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News had definitively quashed any hopes that people might be taking the GOP’s side in the standoff. Americans blamed Republicans over the president by a 20-point margin for the shutdown; the GOP’s rating was at its lowest point in the pollster’s history. Shutting down the government to demand that the president’s unpopular health-care law be stopped had somehow made both President Obama and his health-care legislation more popular.

You might expect this news to put a damper on a roomful of conservatives. In official Washington, Republicans were in a full-on panic; commentators called the party suicidal, and lawmakers began scurrying toward a resolution to the standoff. But Senator Ted Cruz of Texas—the man whose adamant resolve and 21-hour filibuster had helped bring on the stalemate, earning him the loathing of many of his colleagues—was in a defiant mood.

Taking the stage at the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of religious-right activists, Cruz announced that they were winning the fight. “I am here this morning with a word of encouragement and exhortation!” Cruz said. A woman in the front row shouted a passage from Romans: “If God is with you, who can be against you?” “I receive that blessing,” Cruz said somberly.

The conventional wisdom that the battle to stop the health-care law cannot be won, to Cruz, was merely a “trick” perpetrated by the deceitful left. “Look, the Democrats are feeling the heat,” he said. Cruz has been huddling with the lower chamber’s most conservative members, urging them to pressure Speaker John Boehner, prompting some to declare him a sort of shadow speaker. “In my view, the House of Representatives needs to keep doing what it’s been doing, which is standing strong,” he said.

Cruz was interrupted no less than seven times by immigration protesters, each of whom was peacefully escorted out by security. “The nice thing is, the left will always, always, always tell you who they fear,” he mused. Cruz has become an object of fascination among liberals. His speech was carried live on MSNBC; Fox News ignored it.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who partnered with Cruz to push the demand to defund the health-care law that provoked the shutdown, decried the "president's conduct" during the shutdown. Conservatives allege that Obama has selectively applied the closure of the federal government to the functions that will hurt the most people. Lee acknowledged he and Cruz had been “roundly criticized,” but “we make no apologies,” he proclaimed.

Lee told a story about his teenage son listening to music with raunchy lyrics. “Dad, it’s not bad if you don’t think about it,” the boy said. The senator meant it as a parable about the president as compared to the GOP, which he framed as the party of facing hard truths. But not thinking about the current political situation seemed applicable to him and his fellow speakers. After his refusal to apologize, Lee spent the remainder of his allotted 20 minutes making a pitch for renewed emphasis on community in the GOP. Senator Rand Paul, for his part, didn’t even allude to the shutdown, with a speech about the international war on Christianity he said was being perpetrated by radical Muslims.

Senator Marco Rubio was once thought to be the most promising of this cohort, but his firebreathing colleagues have overshadowed him of late. At first, his speech about societal decay seemed painfully generic. But Rubio, whose powerful speeches often have an apocalyptic cast, eventually took a darker tack than the others.

Rubio spoke to “the growing sense, by so many people across this country, that we are losing control of it, that we are losing control of our nation.” Liberal researchers have concluded that the Tea Party right, distinct from their establishment Republican brethren, are fired by a reactionary impulse, a sense of cultural fear and loss. Rubio seemed to speak directly to this feeling.

“I know so many of you are discouraged,” Rubio said. “I know so many people around this country are discouraged by the direction our nation is headed .... And I know that many of you are increasingly scared that maybe we have lost or are losing our country. But you cannot give up on America.”

In between speeches, the phone number of the congressional switchboard was projected on screens at the front of the room. Attendees were encouraged to call their members of Congress and urge them to hold fast to their demands. Among audience members, there was no thought of backing down. Doing the right thing isn’t about being popular, Julie Hoffman, a 48-year-old homeschooler and pastor’s wife from Corpus Christi, Texas, told me; you have to trust in the Lord that integrity and strength will be rewarded in the end.

I asked Tony Perkins, the veteran conservative activist who heads the Family Research Council, what way out of the shutdown he would consider acceptable. He said a delay of the health-care law’s individual mandate—a proposal already rejected by the Senate and president when the House passed it—was the absolute least conservatives would settle for, and that any deal that didn’t substantially affect Obamacare would inspire a revolt. “Ted Cruz has done more to help the Republican Party, I think, than anyone in the last 10 years,” he said, by “reengaging the people Republicans need to win elections.”

Do you care about the polls showing this is hurting the Republican Party? I asked. “No,” he said. “Who are they polling? Just GOP voters? No, the general public.” And what about the schism within the GOP that has resulted? “It’s long overdue,” Perkins said. “Where did that go-along, get-along view get us? Into a mess. It’s time to challenge the status quo.”