Tom Coburn on the "Cruz effect": Conservatives are losing confidence in Congress because of unreasonable expectations

Via BuzzFeed, another reminder that Coburn may be conservative but he’s no Cruz fan. My question in reply, I guess, would be this: What’s a reasonable expectation to have for your party when it controls both chambers of Congress but without a filibuster-proof majority and without the numbers it would need to override a presidential veto? Apart from sequestration, which even some righties don’t like because of what it means for defense spending, the Boehner/McConnell years have been awfully lean on anything conservatives might point to even as a decent compromise with Obama and the Democrats. How do we lay that off on Ted Cruz? The closest Congress has come to anything like a grand bargain in recent years was the Bowles/Simpson Commission on deficit reduction, which cast its final vote during the lame-duck session before the new Republican Congress was seated in January 2011. Coburn himself voted for the Commission’s plan but it failed to gain the supermajority it needed to advance the proposal to congressional consideration — thanks in part to a no vote by Paul Ryan. The first big debt-ceiling fight happened the following year. Ted Cruz didn’t join the Senate until more than a year later. Cruz, I think, is as much a product of conservatives losing confidence in Congress to achieve anything as he is a cause of it. But then, I doubt Coburn would disagree with any of that. Ask him who’s most to blame for Senate dysfunction over the last five years and I’d bet cash money he’d say Harry Reid. And he’d be right.

He’s also right that some grassroots righties who don’t follow politics closely probably do think the 2013 ObamaCare standoff was much more winnable than it really was. But I think another side of the “Cruz effect,” this time among righties who do follow politics closely and understood the futility at the time, is that even setbacks are victories of a sort. The more frustrated and disappointed conservatives are, the more energized they are to elect more conservatives like Cruz to Congress (and the presidency, natch), which improves the odds of eventually winning a shutdown showdown. Get 41 Ted Cruzes in the Senate and they’ll keep the government shut down for months as leverage if they need to, at least in theory. The potential flaw in that theory is this: What if the brinksmanship so alienates people outside Cruz’s base that they end up even more energized? Stuart Rothenberg wondered about that the other day. Maybe nominating Cruz is the only way, he argued, to convince tea partiers that Cruz’s way is a dead end:

But could Cruz win? I don’t think so. He might well carry all or most of the 22 states that McCain carried in 2008, and if the Democratic nominee is damaged badly enough and Barack Obama’s standing in national polls low enough, I suppose it might be possible that he could win.

But it is far more likely that Cruz would underperform among swing voters and suffer additional Republican defections. His nomination would enable Democrats to make the election a referendum on him and the tea party, and it isn’t difficult to imagine 2016 becoming a modern day version of 1964, when Republicans suffered a humiliating defeat.

A Cruz nomination would virtually guarantee Democratic control of the Senate after November’s elections. GOP senators in states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and, of course, Illinois would have little chance of being re-elected, and the party’s prospects in a handful of other Senate races, (e.g., Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and even Arizona) would suddenly become more worrisome…

[A] clear and convincing defeat is the only thing in the foreseeable future that has any chance of convincing Freedom Caucus types in the Republican Party that their strategy is flawed and they have helped damage the Republican brand. (Alas, even a crushing defeat wouldn’t convince everyone.)

I doubt seriously that Cruz would be crushed. He’s run a conspicuously intelligent primary campaign so far — he’s well organized in the early states, he’s raised boatloads of money, and he’s remained disciplined about not antagonizing Trump’s “outsider” constituency. He’s not going to turn into a clod once he’s the nominee. He’d be competitive, although maybe not competitive enough to overcome Democrats branding him “Mr Shutdown” every day on the trail for six months. I think Rothenberg’s kidding himself too in thinking that losing would cause some huge chunk of Cruz’s base to reconsider the Cruz approach. There are a million ways to spin even a decisive defeat — media bias, a better than expected economy, an insurmountable Clinton-fueled fundraising advantage, changing demographics, etc. The strategy of brinksmanship will remain unimpeachable.

Makes me wonder, though: With so many Democrats and Republicans in Congress leery of Cruz, how exactly would he work with Congress as president? I haven’t seen much written about that to date, probably because he hasn’t forced people to think about the scenario by leading in any polls, but now that he’s begun to be taken more seriously it’s worth considering. Would Mitch McConnell, his archnemesis, decide to make peace with a Cruz White House? Could he survive politically among Republican voters in Kentucky if he didn’t? What if Democrats took back the Senate in 2018? How would Cruz work with Chuck Schumer? He may conclude that he has little choice but to expand on Obama’s precedents of executive action if he wants to move his agenda. But then, I think a lot of candidates will reach that conclusion if they win. Meanwhile, look on the bright side, centrist Cruz-haters. There’s no one in the GOP field who could get away with compromising with Democrats as much as President Cruz. His reservoir of goodwill on the right is so vast that I think he alone could sell conservatives on certain bipartisan bills more effectively than any other Republican candidate could. He might surprise people by sitting down with his congressional enemies. And if he does, he could be surprisingly accomplished.

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