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On the flip side, some Republicans question some of Mr. Cruz’s tactics as divisive, or playing into the hands of Democratic stereotypes. For instance, the Texas Republican has supported a TV ad campaign that threw stones at some fellow GOP senators and that pumped up Mr. Cruz’s own image.

Mr. Cruz also highlights what he says are some of the last Bush administration’s lapses from conservative values, in particular its expansion of the Medicare entitlement program. But Mr. Cruz was on Mr. Bush’s policy advisory team in the 2000 presidential campaign and voiced no objections to the Bush plan to vastly expand Medicare once in the Oval Office, according to former Bush aides.

Most sides agree that Mr. Cruz’s command of the airwaves and his ability to effectively communicate on the public stage have made him a star with conservatives nationwide who view the Texan as a new standard-bearer for their cause.

But inside the Beltway, he is viewed by some as an undisciplined self-promoter who makes any issue about himself, and risks undercutting his ability to make deals in the future by overexposing himself now.

The strategy divide

Such fears explain the GOP leaders’ scolding of Mr. Cruz behind closed doors for disregarding the party’s most enduring commandment: Better to abandon hopeless, principled causes so as to live on to fight another day.

The Cruz faction rejects such pragmatism, arguing that just living for another day doesn’t block or slow what they see as a march toward an American-style socialism dominated by big government, heavy-handed regulation, excessive spending and class warfare.

They also argue that history has not served the cause of limited government and personal freedom well when the Republicans leaned to the left or compromised with the left:

In 1971, a beleaguered President Nixon, despised by liberals, imposed drastic federal price and wage controls that critics argued mimicked those in socialist governments.

In 1982, President Reagan, revered by conservatives, signed what remains the largest tax increase in American history. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush, viewed with skepticism by conservatives, broke his no-tax promise, then signed the expensive Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 2003, President George W. Bush and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, with help from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, successfully pushed for Medicare expansion, the largest expansion in entitlements since President Johnson’s “war on poverty” in the 1960s.

The faction aligned with Mr. Cruz argues that funding Obamacare means passing the point of no return to fully socialized medicine. The new breed doesn’t care that some form of socialized medicine already exists in most nations in the top 10 in living standards and gross domestic product. What matters to them is that most Americans have embedded in their DNA a pioneering self-reliance and an impatience with bureaucracy empowered to delay care if it so chooses.

Mr. Cruz’s go-for-broke gamble also frees the news media and Democrats to relentlessly depict Republicans as obstructionists or sore losers. And therein lies the biggest fear of establishment leaders: that the internal struggle may land the GOP as a minority in both congressional chambers, in which case it can kiss goodbye to ever undoing Obamacare.

The struggle between pragmatism and core values, policy and politics and old blood versus new blood shows no sign of relenting. And the first bellwether of the struggle’s consequences may not surface until the 2014 elections.

Until then, the GOP and most of Washington are on course for a continued whirlwind ride.