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GOPocalypse, Part 5: The Miner and Sapper

This is the fifth article in a five-part series on the 2016 GOP nomination. The Buckley Club ran a piece several days ago that made similar arguments.

Ted Cruz’s role was less direct than those of his rivals, but perhaps more pernicious: Cruz ran a four-year campaign for the White House that focused on delegitimizing and destroying the Republican establishment.

If the institutional Republican Party has lost credibility over the last decade, its failures–and reliance on “failure theater”–would surely deserve responsibility. Oftentimes, instead of using institutional power to obstruct Obama, they would create some setup where they could avoid stopping President Obama while making it look like they were resisting him. A great example of this is the Iran deal. The Senate essentially flipped the advice-and-consent provision of the constitution on its head, requiring that the Senate pass a resolution of disapproval, rather than affirming the deal with a two-thirds majority. Thus Republicans could bash the deal without obstructing it.

People can be fooled for a while, but not forever. Of course, Ted Cruz saw his holy mission as one that required that he unmask the venal politicians of the Republican Party, and built a Rolodex worth of enemies in his time in the Senate. He ran a pointless suicide charge against the Affordable Care Act in 2013 and condemned Republicans who sat out. He called Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor and railed against McConnell on debt ceiling machinations. Through it all, Cruz became one of the most popular politicians on the Right: Cruz was calling out the hypocrisy and the lies where he saw them, and he alone was fighting the good fight. Ironically, while criticizing failure theater implicitly, Cruz was offering a different kind of politically motivated play: what we might call “combat theater.” Cruz’s fights led nowhere and bred a sort of political nihilism on the Right: Cruz is a man of principle. If only Cruz had more Republican allies then we’d win again.

Thus, with the help of talk radio, the institutional GOP was utterly delegitimized among rank-and-file Republican primary voters. This is clearest in polling numbers; the GOP favorability rating among Republicans declined from a high of 89 percent in 2012 to 68 percent in April 2016, according to Pew.

Cruz, in other words, was the miner and sapper of the bulwark of a stable political party: he attacked public support for what we could call the GOP being a “measured nuisance” to Obama’s political agenda, instead demanding utter purity. This was in spite of the fact that under the much-maligned Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, Republicans essentially won the spending wars with the White House, as detailed by writer Matthias Shapiro.

Cruz’s mining and sapping resulted in him being widely loathed, but an arbiter of true conservatism, a man that talk radio and the “entertainment establishment” could rely on.

So, when Trump emerged on the Right as a genuine presidential candidate, bolstered by affect and ressentiment, Cruz had an opportunity: he could have denounced Trump for his conservative heresies on Rush Limbaugh’s show, or Sean Hannity’s show, and hoped to bring talk radio along. Instead, what did Cruz do? He went on FOX News and offered effusive praise for Trump, noting, “When it comes to Donald Trump, I like Donald Trump. I think he’s terrific. I think he’s brash. I think he speaks the truth.”

Rick Perry delivered an important anti-Trump speech in July, calling Trump a “sower of discord” (harking back to the Book of Proverbs, in what may well have been a coded message to Evangelicals), “toxic,” and a “carnival barker.” Did Cruz back up Perry to bring the radio establishment on board to an ecumenical anti-Trump message? Nope. Crickets. Perry was out on a limb on his own.

Republican strategist and consistent Trump antagonist Rick Wilson nailed this dynamic back in January:

In August of last year, I described Cruz’s behavior toward Trump as “feeding the alligator in hopes that it eats him last.” As painful as it is for his fans to admit it, there’s only one person to blame for the situation in which Cruz now finds himself and that’s Ted Cruz. For six months now, Cruz has played the role of eager understudy and Trump lickspittle, praising nearly everything that spews from Trump’s mouth. Not only did Cruz set a land-speed record racing off to Trump Tower to pay obeisance to The Donald early in the process, he has taken almost every opportunity to lavish praise on even Trump’s most ridiculous and politically deadly policies. He has embraced and amplified messages that are poisonous among women, Hispanics, and even limited-government conservatives. Cruz has occasionally stepped back from the brink, but always while shoveling on fulsome praise for the notorious game-show host and con artist leading the Republican field.


Cruz continued to draft off of Trump for months, hoping that Trump would fade or drop out and that he could pick up Trump’s supporters. Indeed, as late as December, Cruz was mocking those who wished he would take on Trump. Certainly, Cruz’s interlocutors didn’t necessarily have Cruz’s best interests in mind, but again, we’re talking about opportunities and contingency. Cruz could have decided that Trump was dangerous to the long-term conservative project, to the fight against abortion, to the fight for markets and against cronyism. Instead, he offered perhaps his most famous tweet:

Ted Cruz is not an idiot; he must have known what Donald Trump was all along. He sort of gave up the ghost in the final days of his campaign, calling Trump a “pathological liar,” an “utterly amoral” man, and a “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.” Of course, he had to preface it with his Kinsley gaffe, opening by saying, “I’m going to do something I haven’t done for the entire campaign. I’m going to tell you what I really think of Donald Trump.” If he’d done so sooner, he might have made a difference.

He didn’t.

Image by Gage Skidmore GOPocalypse, Part 5: The Miner and Sapper


Dan Scotto lives and works in New Jersey. He has a master's degree in history, with a focus on the history of disease and the history of technology.

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19 thoughts on “GOPocalypse, Part 5: The Miner and Sapper

  1. Cruz could have decided that Trump was dangerous to the long-term conservative project

    This is where your post completely fails, Dan.

    Cruz has absolutely no interest in the long-term conservative project. He is only interested in his own power. If Obama had called him in 2014 and told him that Obama would make Cruz the Democratic nominee if he switched sides, Ted would have taken the deal in a heartbeat.

    For Cruz the Republican Party is only a vehicle for his own personal project. If at the end of Cruz’ career there is no Republican Party, or no Republic, he will not lose sleep at all.

    Cruz doesn’t have any regrets about how he acted in the primaries (*). His actions are consistent with his long-term interests. He is now the runner-up, he kept the evangelical votes leg fully behind him, and he didn’t piss-off (too much) the Trumpist base (which overlaps significantly with his own base) to be now in the best position to capitalize from next week Trump’s collapse.

    There’s an IPA case that says that Cruz will now focus in coopting Trumpism into Cruzism. And another similar case that says he will succeed, and carry the party in 2020. Any takers?

    (*) I believe Cruz played the best possible game (for him) in the primaries, being probably the first one that identified Trumpism, and that Trumpism wasn’t going away, even if Trump himself did (as Cruz expected or hoped). I’m not so sure his convention non-endorsement and subsequent semi endorsement and “I already voted straight Republican” was the best politics he could do, but in the 11th dimensional chess board I can see reasons to do what he did.

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    • Cruz has absolutely no interest in the long-term conservative project. He is only interested in his own power.

      I second this.

      In fact, this is sorta the reason the right is in trouble. The Republicans problems are oddly recursive…the reason they have a bunch of people with absolutely no interest in the long-term conservative project is that they used to…have a bunch of people with absolutely no interest in the *previous* long-term conservative project.

      For about a decade, starting in the mid-90s, the positions in the party filled up with people who had no interest in *that* long-term conservative project…and the important word there is *no*. Zero.

      To clarify: Both parties have long been full of people who *barely* cared about the long-term goals of the party, but usually have a few goals in there that they want, and there a firebrand that shows up and leads them, and they shrug and go along with it. That’s politics. A bunch of people who are 90% apathetic about their side being convinced, on each topic, by the tiny group that cares, and then their turn rolls around and *they* get fired up about some 10% of the party platform.

      But the right started electing people who had no interest at all. Or perhaps the problem is better described as the goals *as presented to the public* changed, but the actual goals did not. And I don’t think it was the *party* that was changing those goals, but talk radio and Fox News.

      This resulted in anger at the Republican political establishment, and thus presented an opening…for anyone who could say the right words. This got a lot of true believers in, but it also got a lot of con men like Ted Cruz in.

      Of course, this means the elected officials are made up of some percentage of incumbent Republicans looking around in confusion before figuring out they needed to mouth crazy things to not get primaried, actual crazy people, and completely conmen. That is…uh…not a manageable party.

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  2. on debt ceiling machinations.

    A separate comment to say that Debt Ceiling Authorizations are nothing more than a Repeal of math.

    Once you approve a budget, you have to provide the money for it, either via taxes or via debt. You can chose two of the three, but once you decide on budget and taxes, debt is just math.

    If you don’t want the debt to increase (let’s not relitigate what debt means for a country as opposed to a family) then you either increase taxes or cut the budget. (Wo)Man up, take ownership of your convictions, and make the difficult choices of what to cut or what taxes to increase. Debt ceiling tinkering is just threatre (and a great way to continue sapping the foundations (in this case the creditworthiness) of the country.

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    • There’s probably an interesting legal case to be made that the mere act of passing the budget gives Treasury the power to borrow as needed to pay for it, overriding any previous restrictions on borrowing and granting any necessary authority. Treasury is, after all, merely following the instructions of Congress.

      Because, as you note, math.

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      • Yes it was.

        Though, in the name of Both Sides Don’t Actually Do it, it should be mentioned that the debt explosion in the Bush years was in great part associated with running two wars outside the books, with no appropriations.

        So, under the Math rule that you have to set two of the following three: budget, taxes, debt, and you decide to skip the budget, then you should fix both taxes and debt.

        So, Obama had a more colarable argument than McConnel.

        But it is still bad. You don’t play with the country credit worthiness

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      • How many shut downs over the debt ceiling have Obama and his party precipitated precisely? IIRK the answer is somewhere in the neighborhood of zero, yes?
        Yes, both sides harped and caviled about the debt ceiling, the debt and the deficit when out of power. That has been one of the minority party privileges since, at least, when Bill dragged the Democratic party fully into a market/neo liberalism economic policy stance. It’s only under the GOP in their more deranged state that anyone tried seriously muscling policy concessions from that theater*.

        *Though Obama does bear some small portion of blame for actually giving in** to this hardball tactic when they sprang it on him and thus giving the GOP reason to believe they’d actually succeed with it.

        **Though perhaps I should be kinder on him since that particular deal basically defenestrated the neocon-defense con wing of the GOP and exposed them as basically powerless.

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    • @j_a

      The debt ceiling is just another example of Failure Theatre. Congress wants to pretend that it wants to reduce the deficit, so instead of making the messy trade offs required to do so through the budget, they act like government spending is something that has nothing to do with them and effectively issue contradictory instructions to the Treasury.

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  3. He called Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor

    Was he accurate in doing so or inaccurate?

    If he was inaccurate, we’re criticizing Cruz for slandering Mitch McConnell and smearing the man with the term “liar” despite Mitch McConnell telling the truth and that is pretty messed up and deserves censure.

    But if Mitch McConnell lied and then Cruz called him a liar, this seems like we’re complaining about Cruz being tacky and insufficiently pragmatic.

    I know that it may seem irrelevant to you whether McConnell lied when it comes to Cruz calling him a liar, but I’d kind of like to know whether McConnell actually lied to Cruz’s face as described in the article you linked to.

    Cet animal est très méchant,
    Quand on l’attaque il se défend.

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  4. You’ll need a Part 6/epilogue, “Trump,” maybe after you’ve had a chance to digest results that will no doubt be shocking to those who have been suckered in by MSM polls and not counting yard signs in Connecticut and comparing popularity of Halloween costumes. Still not clear to me whether the “aftermath” will justify a tweetstorm, a blog-post, a book, or a shelf of them.

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