When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bumped into Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus near Capitol Hill recently, the discussion turned to the man who has become the undisputed public face of the government shutdown: Republican Ted Cruz.
The Republican National Committee staff was about to send an email blast urging the party faithful, and their wallets, to stand behind Mr. Cruz in his battle against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. No one inside the RNC expected a backlash. After all, Mr. Cruz had become a hot commodity since his all-night filibuster on the Senate floor, and Mr. Reid has long been a favorite inspiration for Republican donors.
But Mr. McConnell politely cautioned Mr. Priebus at their chance encounter, suggesting that the party chief should not look like he was taking sides in the tactical dispute between Mr. Cruz or other members of the GOP’s raucous tea party faction and the party’s congressional leaders. Mr. Priebus countered that he saw himself as chairman of the entire party and would support any Republican, including Mr. Cruz, in battling Democrats.
The RNC sent an unequivocal email soon afterward, under Mr. Priebus’ name: “In a fight between Harry Reid and Ted Cruz, I will stand with Ted Cruz any day,” he said in the message, extolling Mr. Cruz’s anti-Obamacare efforts. “As Republicans, we must remain true to our principles and fight to protect the American people from this reckless law.”
Soon, establishment Republicans who had chafed for months about the ego, tactics and strident focus of the junior senator from Texas were on the phone to staff. They complained that the RNC was picking sides in an intraparty struggle between establishment leaders and a new generation of headstrong conservatives epitomized by Mr. Cruz.
The anecdote, related by multiple Republican insiders, offers the best evidence yet that the impact of the tea party wing on Washington goes beyond the federal shutdown, and increasingly is being felt behind closed doors, where struggle for control of the GOP has intensified. Mr. McConnell’s office said it disputed some aspects of the account, though it declined to be specific.
Unlike House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican who has often bent to conservative wishes under pressure, Mr. McConnell of Kentucky has struggled to harness a raucous wing of about 20 Republican senators and several dozen House members aligned with libertarian or tea party sympathies.
The wing’s de-facto leaders are three relative newcomers — Mr. Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Mike Lee — and it has confounded political convention by relentlessly seeking to end Obamacare, even if it means defaulting on the nation’s debt — or hyperinflating the dollar — by failing to raise the debt ceiling.
To the horror of moderates and party leaders, this new generation of conservatives seems impervious to arguments that their campaign will set back GOP electoral ambitions in 2014, 2016 and beyond.
Jim DeMint, a former senator who now runs the Heritage Foundation, knows the type. He himself was one of the stubborn rabble-rousers when he served alongside Mr. Paul and Mr. Lee in the Senate, before stepping down.
“I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in principles of freedom than 60 who don’t,” Mr. DeMint said on leaving the Senate for Heritage.
Just how do party leaders confront such reckless abandon? The answer so far is: They don’t know. And it may be partly because traditional Republicans haven’t figured out what makes this new breed of conservative tick or what, if anything, can make them waver or relent.
A new star
Mr. Cruz has captured the hearts of many conservative ideologues with his relentless campaign to defund Obamacare. They say his do-or-die tactics have ensured that the health care law will be the 2014 elections’ centerpiece and that Republican candidates will have to stiffen their spines and campaign on repeal.
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.