PERFORMANCE ART SEPTEMBER 25, 2013
“I call it a phonybuster,” the inimitable Sen. Chuck Schumer told The Washington Post’s Jason Horowitz Tuesday afternoon. “Because we’ll vote at noon whether he speaks or not.”
He was referring to Sen. Ted Cruz’ long (as I write early Wednesday morning, more than ten hours long) speech on the Senate floor, which included a reading of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham (The Daily Beast is doing a live blog). Cruz is speaking to try to prevent a vote on a bill the House passed that would continue funding the government for a period of time while also defunding the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. There are two particularly notable things about the Texas Tea Party Republican’s peroration. The first is that it is, indeed, not technically a filibuster: When the bill he is speaking in protest of comes to the floor Wednesday at 1 pm, he will have to yield. The second is that he supports the bill he is speaking in protest of. No, really.
Does Cruz contradict himself? Very well then, he contradicts himself. Though there is a certain Alice in Wonderland sense in which he is making sense, since the bill is sure eventually to emerge from the Senate stripped of its provisions that defund Obamacare, the undeniable fact is that he is speaking (literally just talking: Dr. Seuss and Nazis and White Castle) in order to try to prevent a vote on a bill he supports. Oh, and it is futile and not even really real or binding. It is just a long talk. You, kind reader, could talk for 10 hours in your house and it would have the same practical effect on the Senate outcome (and make bathroom breaks much easier).
It’s a little bit crazy, certainly as a substantive maneuver. Don’t ask me: Ask a Republican senator. They and most (though not all) of their colleagues realized, as New York’s Jonathan Chait explained several days ago, that an actual filibuster would be spectacularly self-destructive. Here are quotes just from one New York Times article: “We’d be hard-pressed to explain why we were opposed to a bill we’re in favor of,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, who has made virtually every effort to mimic his Kentucky colleague Rand Paul, like Cruz a Tea Party darling, in advance of an election next year. “Repealing Obamacare is a goal all Republicans share, but the tactics of achieving that goal can have a backlash,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham. “If this is what you wanted, consideration of this bill, I don’t know how you can be against taking it up,” said Sen. Richard Burr. “I don’t know what all the scenes are, but I’ve seen how this movie ends. We will end up not shutting the government down, and we will not defund Obamacare,” said Sen. John McCain. What Cruz is embarking on appears to be nuts: Nuts, that is, even by the standards of current Republican legislators.
Which is the thing that gives one pause: Is anything nuts by those current standards? Or are there political rewards even for this brand of madness? Given everything we know about House districts gerrymandered within inches of their lives and established, conservative senators getting knocked off by upstart Tea Party challengers—“Ted Cruzed” is now the preferred term for this maneuver in Texas, reports GQ’s Jason Zengerle—who are we, or who is anyone, to say that something is too far for Republican politicians? Why can’t we expect Cruz to garner the exact type of positive press he—and other GOP politicians—should want? (The Heritage Foundation is backing Cruz. That’s the really crazy part.) Let’s also remember that although polls widely show that the majority of Americans would likely blame Republicans for a government shutdown, the majority of Americans are also at the very least queasy about Obamacare. It’s not an insane issue to take a stand on, either substantively or politically (well, at least until you remember that Obamacare is law that has in large part actually already been funded; then it becomes a little insane).
Is there a too-crazy? Zengerle’s Cruz profile does a good job using Cruz to wrestle with this important question. “Maybe Cruz does know better,” Zengerle posits. “For a party in the midst of some serious soul-searching, Cruz offers a simple, reassuring solution: Forget the blather about demographic tidal waves and pleas for modernization; all Republicans need to do is return to their small-government, anti-tax fundamentals.”
Maybe Cruz doesn’t know better—a possibility for which Zengerle more than allows. That he does not know better is the conventional wisdom among most Republicans. You can guess how Democrats feel about him. And the ostensibly neutral media is having a tough time with the whole “balanced” thing when confronted with this prima facie evidence of lunacy: “What’s Ted Cruz’s Deal?” is an actual headline on a CNN article from Tuesday night.
I would advise all the decent folk to wait on popping the Champagne, though. It is not just that it is too early to tell whether the political battles—over Obamacare, over funding the government, over restoring a semblance of sanity or even basic potency to the U.S. legislative process—have been won. It is that prematurely declaring victory could set us even further back. Before that famous Republican fever can break, we are all going to have to come around to the fact that this Cruz-type stuff has had a tendency over the past several years to work. (If it didn’t, the famously Princeton and Harvard-educated senator wouldn’t have been able to use it to become a U.S. senator, and he wouldn’t keep doing it). Filibuster, phonybuster: The current incentive structure doesn’t really make a distinction.