More than a few things that make up the core of modern conservatism started with “lost causes.” Oh, those who proposed them didn’t think they were lost causes, but if they listened to their critics, to their opponents, to the Republican establishment, and the media telling them they were jumping off the cliff, that they were mentally challenged or just plain out of their minds, they would have packed their bags and gone home.
When Bill Buckley started National Review in 1955, the press, following the lead of the liberals, was apoplectic. Dwight Macdonald, a leading lefty critic of the time, called the magazine dull, low-quality fare offered by obscure and eccentric “scrambled eggheads” for the “intellectually underprivileged, the voice of the lumpen-bourgeousie.” He called Buckley and his editors “anxious, embittered, resentful, they feel that the mainstream of American politics since 1933 has passed them by, as indeed it has, and they have the slightly paranoiac suspiciousness of an isolated minority group.” But Buckley stuck to his guns, and NR helped to establish the conservative movement.
Or how about the 1964 Goldwater election? Barry was accused, largely by establishment Republicans, of being paranoid, a threat to the American way of life, a Neanderthal and second-rate thinker whose mind was being consumed by some sort of undiagnosible disease. Goldwater ran anyway, lost to Lyndon Johnson, and paved the way for Ronald Reagan, launching the national conservative political movement in the process.
When Ronald Reagan decided to challenge Jerry Ford in 1976, mainstream Republicans were beside themselves and accused Reagan of being a spoiler and demented loser with a Kamikaze mentality. But Reagan knew exactly what he was doing and wasn’t deterred by the naysayers. Ford beat him, of course, but only by a handful of votes, and Reagan’s concession speech at the Republican Convention was the first speech of the 1980 campaign. I asked Ed Meese, Reagan’s confidant and subsequent Attorney General, about Reagan’s challenge to Ford. He told me, “Reagan’s early quests for the presidency [he had also toyed with the idea of running in 1968] were not immediately successful, but the efforts were the beginning of a major change in American politics that ultimately became the dominant governing philosophy.”
The Panama Canal Treaty, Henry Kissinger’s plan to turn the Canal over to the Panamanians, may have been Reagan’s quintessential “lost cause” that helped to get him elected in 1980. Jimmy Carter bought into the plan part way through his term, and Reagan signed on as the most outspoken, most articulate opponent of the idea in the face of huge pressure from the Republican establishment, the media, and, of course, the liberals. Leading the fight for the GOP establishment was Howard Baker, the moderate minority leader. The treaties were ultimately passed by the Senate but only by a couple of votes.
Of particular interest, and something Ted Cruz’s opponents have probably forgotten, is that every Democratic senator who voted for the treaties lost their reelection bids in 1978 and 1980, allowing Republicans to gain Senate control for the first time in nearly 30 years. I asked Reagan biographer Craig Shirley what the impact was for Reagan, who told me, “The Panama Canal fight not only invigorated Reagan’s support leading into 1980, but Reagan knew from his history that you fight the fights that are worth fighting. Out of this come strength, opportunity, and, ultimately, victory.”
I attended a private, closed-door meeting late in the afternoon of July 17th in Senator Mike Lee’s office to talk about Obamacare and how to stop it. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson, and several other Senators were there together with 25 or so conservative leaders. Lee and Cruz were very much in charge and started off by saying the options, and time, were running out to derail Obamacare. The only chance left, they believed, was to pass a Continuing Resolution to fund the government, before the October 1st deadline, with no money to implement Obamacare. There was a very slim chance of success, and they knew that the leadership, together with the rest of the Republican establishment, would do everything in their power to derail the train.
Cruz and Mike Lee recognized that this might be a lost cause. “But even if we don’t win,” they emphasized, “We can change the debate in Washington.”
Lee and Cruz had collected signatures from 17 senators on a letter to the leadership supporting the idea. Early opposition had scared away a couple of squishy senators who had already asked that their names be removed, and Lee and Cruz knew there would be more. Amusingly, Mike Lee plopped the letter down in front of Freshman Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, just elected on a conservative platform, who refused to sign and left the meeting (and subsequently supported the leadership opposing the Cruz and Lee plan).
In just ten weeks–from July 17th, when the idea of defunding Obamacare through the continuing resolution was hatched, until Wednesday–Cruz, Lee, and the others leading the fight have become the bane of the GOP establishment, have had every kind of criticism hurled at them from every direction. Plenty has been written about that, and there is no reason to repeat it here.
It is safe to say that Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and a few colleagues in the Senate have not only reshaped the debate about Obamacare but reshaped the debate about funding the government, about debate in the Senate, and about what part in the political process is played by members of Congress and what part by the people. As Ted Cruz told Rush Limbaugh:
The central issue is the long-standing problem we have had with Washington not listening to the American people with Democrats and Republicans. It’s a lot of folks who’ve been in office way too long, who stopped listening to their constituents–and, as a result, we see lots of theater, lots of empty symbolic votes, and very little willingness to actually stand up and fight on behalf of the American people.
Is Ted Cruz’s campaign against Obamacare another “lost cause” that will change the process and change politics? Is it another 1964 Goldwater campaign, another 1976 Reagan Campaign, another Panama Canal Treaty? It is certainly too early to know. Harry Reid may be able to push Obamacare funding through the Senate, but it is certain that if he does he won’t have many votes to spare, and it is also certain that Cruz’s 21-hour filibuster won’t soon be forgotten.
I think it is a pretty safe bet that Cruz’s filibuster might just be another of those conservative lost causes that changes the way things are done, changes the outcome, and changes the face of American politics.