For Democrats, it's simple: Sen. Ted Cruz is the face of the government shutdown and just about everything that is wrong with Washington. Republicans, though, aren't sure: The senator from Texas is either the best — or the worst — thing to happen to the party in years.
The freshman lawmaker's Democratic colleagues in the Senate have called Mr. Cruz a schoolyard bully, an anarchist and a puppet master of misguided lawmakers in the ongoing spending stalemate.
The anti-Cruz rhetoric grew so heated last week that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apologized for his nasty tone on the Senate floor after Republicans accused the Nevada Democrat of violating the "spirit" of decorum in the upper chamber.
Since arriving in Washington this year, Mr. Cruz, a former debate champion at Princeton, has become the most visible and the most vocal opponent of President Obama's Affordable Care Act, warning in floor speeches, television and radio appearances and closed-door Republican meetings that the 2010 law will have a catastrophic effect on the nation.
"What the American people want is they want our government funded and they want to stop the harms from Obamacare," Mr. Cruz said Sunday on CNN. "Obamacare is hurting millions of people. It's killing their jobs. It's forcing them into part-time work. It's driving up health insurance premiums. And it's causing millions of Americans to lose or risk losing their health insurance."
Mr. Cruz's unrelenting, hard-nosed style has rallied tea partyers and grass-roots conservatives to his banner.
A Public Policy Polling survey found that Mr. Cruz has leapfrogged past the likes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to become the top pick of Republican primary voters in the 2016 presidential nomination race.
Mr. Cruz, though, also has ticked off Republicans who say the Texan's efforts are fueled as much by his personal political ambitions as they are by any desire to expand the party or foster good governance.
They also say his strategy to defund Obamacare is doomed to fail and is tarnishing the Republican brand.
Indeed, polls show that most Americans disapprove of the Affordable Care Act — but they don't support wrapping Obamacare into the fight over funding for other government operations, as has happened in the week-old shutdown.
Polls also show that more Americans blame Republicans for the impasse and that tea partyers, who now hold up Mr. Cruz as a political savior, back the shutdown, while the majority of the electorate — Democrats, independents and Republicans — do not.
"What I hope that doesn't happen is that with all this focus on this shiny object that was never going to happen, that we have taken our eye off the thing that is usually negotiated around the debt ceiling: that is reforms and reductions in spending so we don't have future deficits at the level we are now having them," said Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican.
Mr. Corker clashed with Mr. Cruz last month on the Senate floor, accusing the Texan of being more interested in raising his national profile than working toward a deal to prevent a shutdown.
Mr. Cruz also got an earful last week from his Republican colleagues during a closed-door meeting in which Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire reportedly criticized Mr. Cruz for sticking with outside conservative groups that are attacking Senate Republicans for not embracing the no-holds-barred approach to defunding Obamacare.
Mr. Cruz has said that he is simply listening to voters and following through on a top promise he made on the campaign trail last year.
Along those lines, he joined former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who now runs the conservative Heritage Foundation, at anti-Obamacare town-hall meetings over the summer that were meant to ramp up pressure on lawmakers of all stripes to join the fight — or else.
Mr. Cruz followed up last month with a 21-hour filibuster against a Senate measure that included Obamacare funding, telling fellow Republicans that anyone who allowed the resolution to move forward would be voting to "fully fund Obamacare."
The effort failed to move the needle in the Senate, but it did inject some energy into House Republican efforts to put the brakes on the health care law.
The House has stonewalled a Senate bill that would fund all government operations and Obamacare through Nov. 15, which Democrats say would give both parties a chance to work out their differences.
Over the past week, the House has pushed individual bills to fund specific government programs, including Veterans Affairs and museums, while demanding that Democrats accept a one-year delay of Obamacare's individual mandate.
As much as Mr. Cruz says the fight is not about him, his own messaging at times seems to contradict that.
Last week, he took to the floor of the Senate to call on the chamber to act on the House bills, a day after Senate Republican leaders made the same request.
Both initiatives failed and the Cruz effort fed into lingering Republican concerns that Mr. Cruz's strategy is misguided. Mr. Reid pointed out that Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican, said House Republicans were waiting for Mr. Cruz to explain the next move now that "he's the one that got us into this mess."
Other Republicans are more reluctant to weigh in on the Cruz effect. Last week, Rep. Michael K. Simpson of Idaho laughed and suggested he was better off keeping his thoughts to himself before slipping into the House chamber for a vote.
Still, Mr. Cruz has his followers, most notably among House Republicans who are calling on Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio to insist that Obamacare does not get off the ground.
"I think he has been a huge asset," said Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican. "He's been a rallying force. I think he has been a unifying force and has been an energizing force. I think he has had a huge positive impact."
Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Cruz's influence has been good and bad.
"I think the positive is that he has brought a lot of attention to the issue," Mr. Griffth said. "The negative is that he stepped on some toes in the process. But as the old saying goes, in order to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs."
Democrats, meanwhile, are happy to use Mr. Cruz as an all-purpose Republican boogeyman, hoping that it will bolster their argument in the spending debate and help the party pick up seats in the 2014 elections.
"I think Ted Cruz represents an ideology that is so far out of the mainstream that, quite frankly, responsible Republicans here should be ignoring him just like responsible Republicans in the Senate are ignoring him," said Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat. "He doesn't represent serious legislating. He is just a guy that likes to get up and say provocative things and rail against government. [Former House Speaker] Sam Rayburn used to say that any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a real carpenter to build one."
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