Amidst the Republican cheer about scandals afflicting the Obama administration and Democrats, there is a far more interesting sideshow going on in Washington — one that threatens to tear the GOP apart right at the time they need to be unified in order to keep the House and take control of the Senate next year.
It’s the ongoing, destructive feud between two Senators representing different factions of the Republican Senate. John McCain representing the GOP establishment and Ted Cruz, darling of the Tea Party nationwide, have been going at it all week on the Senate floor. The proximate cause of the sniping and backbiting has been the GOP establishment’s desire to move the budget recently passed by Senate Democrats to a conference committee. But Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul are blocking the motion because they believe the Democrats will try to slip a rise in the debt ceiling somewhere in the budget, thus denying conservatives the opportunity to use the debt as leverage in their efforts to get the congress on record to pass a balanced budget in 10 years.
The real fight is for the very soul of the Republican party and what the public face of the GOP will be. Will Republicans be seen as ideologically rigid obstructionists, hell bent on preventing the functioning of government, eschewing compromise even with members of their own party? This is what establishmentarians like John McCain, Susan Collins, and other more moderate Republicans fear. They are afraid that the Tea Party is playing directly into the narrative established by President Obama and the Democrats about the GOP being a far right, unreasonable collection of people who hate government.
Whether it’s true or not isn’t the point. With an eager media advancing that perception by gleefully reporting Senator Cruz’s every bombastic utterance, the efforts by McCain and other establishment figures in the party to temper the GOP image seems doomed to fail.
In an effort to assuage concerns — or perhaps highlight his belief that they are unfounded — McCain pointed to the fact that the House GOP majority will also be a part of the conference process, protecting against the outcome feared by the conservative senators.
But none of it would sway Cruz, who has quickly established himself as the fiery voice of the right in the Senate.
“I will suggest to my friend from Arizona, there may be more wacko birds in the Senate than is suspected,” the Texas senator said Thursday, before wagering McCain could not secure the willingness of most Senate Republicans to allow the risk of Democrats raising the debt ceiling.
So confident was Cruz that he offered to wear an Arizona Diamondbacks hat at a Houston Astros home baseball game if he was proven incorrect.
The House GOP has been riven by discord since the 2010 wave election ushered in a new class of lawmakers with little regard for the “way things work” or loyalty to party leadership. In the more orderly Senate, we are starting to see something similar take place. It’s grown clear that the disputes between McCain and Cruz are not limited to a single issue. Budget fight? Check. Foreign policy spat? Done.
Cruz’s “wacko birds” remark was a reference to a pejorative label McCain gave him, Paul and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) earlier this year. McCain and his close ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), objected strongly to Paul’s marathon filibuster over the Obama administration’s use of unmanned aerial drones. Joining Paul were Cruz, other conservatives, and notably, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has been mindful of his image on the right among as he seeks to avoid a primary threat in 2014.
McCain, Graham, and the rest of the party establishment in the Senate appear to be at a loss on how to handle Cruz and his allies. Given their popularity in some quarters of the party, the usual Senate disciplinary measures probably won’t work. Sticking Cruz on obscure committees and ignoring any legislation he proposes appear not to phase the Texas Senator one bit. He revels in his “outsider” reputation — going so far as to say that he doesn’t trust Republicans when it comes to dealing with the debt. Those kind of statements are guaranteed to make him enemies.
But even more fundamental to the dispute is a vision of how government should work. If you approach governance by believing that compromise is betrayal, the opposition should be crushed, and that going to war against members of your own party is a viable means to advance an agenda, nothing will get done and your nihilistic philosophy of government will triumph. Further, if you believe this philosophy to be a pathway to higher office — the highest — such a damaging, uncaring approach to the people’s business will probably not be rewarded by the voters.
Cruz is popular with the right because he articulates the rage of many who think that the GOP establishment is weak willed and refuses to engage the Democrats in the kind of hand to hand combat that Cruz excels at. To one degree or another, they are probably right. But Republicans are going to need all hands on deck if they are to reach their goals in 2014. With the establishment wanting to make Cruz and his allies walk the plank while the Tea Party looks to feed establishmentarians to the sharks, the two sides appear to be irreconcilable — a fact that will sink Republican hopes in the mid terms.