Democratic politics is a constant tug-of-war between principle and practicality. In a well-functioning system, legislators accept that fact and compromise accordingly; the electorate rewards them for maturity and realism. In the United States, however, democracy is not functioning particularly well at the moment.
And so we have Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Many – including, privately, many within his own Republican Party – accuse Cruz of grandstanding. Even accepting his objection to Obamacare as a matter of high conservative principle responsive to the wishes of his constituents, the course he has chosen, with fellow freshman Mike Lee, R-Utah, and a handful of other senators, is patently futile and counterproductive.
A Congressional Research Service analysis has demonstrated that most of the health law would still be implemented even if Congress excluded funds for it from a temporary spending bill. Meanwhile, that bill, whose ultimate passage Cruz is obstructing, would peg the overall budget at the truncated level set in the sequester – a limitation some regard as indiscriminate and ill-advised but that the GOP could trumpet to its grass roots as a victory for small government, if not for Cruzs noisy crusade. And, of course, theres the public backlash that might hit Republicans if Congress cant pass the bill by Monday, forcing a partial government shutdown.
Cruzs attempt to mount a legislative Battle of the Alamo is not worth waging even in terms of its benefits to conservatism. Nor does it make sense on the merits, since the health care law represents a step toward universal coverage and controlling costs.
And thats not to mention the real-world effects of a shutdown, actual or threatened, on federal programs and the workers who operate them.
The political and procedural reality in the Democratic-controlled Senate is that Cruz and Co. will fail; a continuing resolution with no defund-Obamacare language will probably pass near the Monday deadline. What happens in the House is anyones guess, given that pressure from Mr. Cruz on conservative House back-benchers forced Speaker John Boehner to tie a defunding provision to the spending bill thats now in the Senate.
According to some conventional wisdom, even if Cruz loses, he wins, gaining popularity among the GOP base and, hence, clout on the Hill. In that view, Boehner would be under pressure once again to use the spending bill for another symbolic attack on the health care law. Boehner and a large majority of his party should learn a different lesson: that Cruzs extreme path is a road to ruin, for Republicans but, more importantly, for the country.