Sowell, Cruz, and the happy minority

Thomas Sowell wrote a two-part column last week taking Senator Ted Cruz to task for advancing his own interests at the cost of the conservative movement and Republican Party.  (Part I here, Part II here.) 

It’s mostly about the political damage suffered by Republicans during Shutdown Theater, a sequence of events for which Cruz is often criticized (as Dr. Sowell does here) because he had no plausible winning end-game.  There was no chance ObamaCare would be defunded, not while Barack Obama held the veto pen, plus a limitless ability to make the American people suffer without being held accountable by anyone in the media.  

In Part II of his column, Sowell criticizes Cruz for obliging Republicans to come out in the open and vote for raising the debt ceiling.  He has words of praise for Cruz and criticism of the Republican establishment as well – if Cruz is a problem for the Establishment, he’s a problem they have created by leaving a leadership vacuum for him to fill.  Here’s an excerpt that serves well to express Sowell’s thesis:

Senator Cruz’s filibuster last year got the Republicans blamed for shutting down the government — and his threatened filibuster this year forced several Republican Senators to jeopardize their own reelection prospects by voting to impose cloture, to prevent Cruz from repeating his self-serving grandstand play of last year. The Republicans need every vote they can get in the Senate — plus additional votes by defeating some Democrats who are running for the Senate this fall. It can be a very close call. Jeopardizing the reelection of current Republican Senators is an act of utter irresponsibility, a high risk with zero benefits to anyone except Ted Cruz — and the Democrats.

However unjustified Senator Cruz’s actions, the very fact that a freshman Senator can so quickly gain so many supporters, with somuch enthusiasm, ought to be a loud warning to the Republican establishment that they have long been a huge disappointment to a wide range of Republican voters and supporters.

After this passage in the second half of the essay, Sowell transitions to beating up the GOP leadership for their lousy messaging skills – something Cruz could help them with, if they’d follow his lead.

As a longtime fan of Thomas Sowell’s work – it would not be too strong to speak of reverence – and also a supporter of Senator Cruz, this is a bit of a painful conflict for me.  Sowell is making a strong form of the “win elections if you want the power to do anything else” argument, which is a logical case, mixed in with a few jabs at what he perceives as Cruz’ self-interested grandstanding.  Personally, I think the Establishment is at least as self-interested in getting rid of him.  There are plenty of Republicans in the power structure who are rather happy being a well-tended permanent minority, just important enough for the dominant Big Government culture to make deals with, to say nothing of the GOP power brokers who are enthusiasts for that Big Government culture and want their shot at running it.  The whole point of the Tea Party movement is to call rubbish on that cozy arrangement.  

My problem with the reasonable case that boats should not be rocked until the elections have been won is that I don’t see any compelling evidence the current GOP leadership is going to rock them after the election, no matter how big they win.  Andy McCarthy at National Review makes a devastating point about how Senate Republicans, other than Cruz and his compadres, handle their minority role.  Writing about that debt-ceiling vote, McCarthy says:

When they were in the minority, cloture was how Democrats stopped conservative bills and conservative nominees cold. For the Republican establishment, it became the cudgel for beating down right-wing upstarts: Nothing can happen and no one can get confirmed without 60 votes, you see, so we “pragmatic” grown-ups simply must bite the bullet and accept moderately progressive policies and nominees — these “centrist” Democrats just won’t budge.

Now in the majority with 55 seats (53 Dems plus two nominal independents who vote with them), Democrats remain as disciplined as ever. Unlike Republicans, they stick together to fight for the things (statism, power . . .) they believe in. Does anyone tell them, “Look, nothing can happen without 60 votes, so you’ve got to moderate?” Are you kidding?

Still the stubborn fact remains: Cloture is the only vehicle for stopping Democrats. They cannot get to 60 without Republican help. They cannot enact Obama’s agenda without Republican support. So the truth is exactly the opposite of what GOP leaders and their amen-corner would have you believe. The ballgame is the cloture vote: the only one in which Republicans, by sticking together, have the power to shelve any bill — including any debt-ceiling hike — that they truly oppose. Cloture is the substantive vote because it determines whether the bill will pass. Once the 60-vote hurdle is cleared, it is the final vote that becomes the mere procedural formality.

It might be said of Ted Cruz that he plays by Democrat rules, and runs into trouble mostly because he’s playing for the Republican team.  Likewise, the case Sowell makes for securing electoral victory first, in order to effect significant change, is good advice for Democrats, but not so much for the GOP leadership as currently construed.  

I’ve said often, since the rise of Ted Cruz, that Republicans often allow Democrats to win congressional dust-ups without making them spend any political capital at all.  Worse, the Republicans like to force themselves to pay a higher price than needed, whenever they come anywhere near making a stand.  As McCarthy’s description of cloture illustrates, the two parties will play the same hand of political cards in entirely different ways.  Cruz and his allies seem determined to change those rules.

To be brutally frank, I don’t see the point of electing Republicans to be the center-left counterpart to hard-left Democrats.  If there was ever a time to play such games, it has long passed.  I can’t work up much enthusiasm for preserving Republicans as minor speed bumps on the road to ruin, either.  And I’m not convinced they’re going to rack up big victories by keeping mum and letting Democrats destroy themselves, even in the very bad Democrat election that approaches.  They’ve got to get out there and energize both their base and the general public, style themselves as something more than The Guys Who Only Reluctantly Go Along With ObamaCare, or worse, the tax collectors for the welfare state.  If they don’t act like their signature issues are worth fighting for, why should the public get behind them?  And why is the base going to believe that next time will truly be Next Time, after the leadership abandoned Cruz during the shutdown drama and said the debt ceiling would be Next Time?  

This is not an argument in favor of bad strategy or sloppy tactics, but every time I hear Cruz, Mike Lee, et al described as “kamikazes,” I think of the entire country on a nose dive into obliteration with white-knuckled Democrat hands on the stick and throttle.  How much time do we have left to pull up?