Ignoring the Obvious

09.30.13

Ted Cruz and Other GOP Congressmen Lose by Acting Like Winners

Acting like they won the last election may be fun for Republicans like Ted Cruz, but it’s terrible politics. Just ask the Democrats. By Peter Beinart.

In the days leading up to last November’s election, I remember thinking it odd that, despite the polls, so many Republicans were so certain that Mitt Romney would win. Turns out that wasn’t the strange part. The strange part is that almost a year later, many in the GOP think he actually did.

This March, Ted Cruz told the Dallas Morning News that his “biggest surprise” since entering the Senate “has been the defeatist attitude of many Republicans in Washington.” Cruz found this odd since “I believe we are winning the argument.”

Evidently it didn’t dawn on Cruz that the reason his fellow Republicans seemed “defeatist” was that their party had been, well, defeated. For the second time, Barack Obama had handily dispatched their presidential nominee. Once again, Democrats had held the Senate. Even in the House, where Republicans enjoyed a majority, Democrats had won the popular vote. Cruz may have believed that Republicans were “winning the argument” but he forgot that in our political system, we have a handy way to check. They’re called elections.

The good news, from Cruz’s perspective, is that in the six months since he uttered those words, he and his fellow Tea Partiers have convinced their party’s leaders to stop worrying about trifles like the elections of 2008 and 2012, both of which focused obsessively on Barack Obama’s ideas about health care. Notwithstanding the polls showing that most Americans don’t want Obamacare repealed, especially if it means shutting down the government, today’s Republicans have decided that the American people are on their side.

What we’re witnessing today in the GOP is not positive thinking. It’s entitlement. As Cruz himself has explained, the young firebrands now dictating the Republican Party’s direction are “children of Reagan.” Having come of age under a popular conservative president, they refuse to believe that “Reaganism” does not sell anymore. (Actually, genuine “Reaganism”--as practiced by the guy who repeatedly raised taxes, preserved social security, appointed pro-choice Supreme Court justices and amnestied illegal immigrants--would be left-wing heresy in today’s GOP). And, so far, no amount of election defeats will dissuade them.

The best precedent for all this is what happened to Democrats in the 70s and 80s. Again and again during those decades, the party suffered crushing defeats at the hands of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But liberal politicians and activists, having come of age during the glory days of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, could not accept that they must accommodate themselves to the nation’s new conservative mood. And so liberals ignored the public by switching their focus to the courts—and urging liberal judges to enact the regulatory and cultural agenda that had been repudiated at the ballot box.

For two decades, the illusion that liberals could push the policy agenda left even as the electorate was moving right kept Democrats from making the ideological compromises necessary to win.

It didn’t end well. By refusing to heed the public will, liberals gained a reputation for elitism. And for two decades, the illusion that liberals could push the policy agenda left even as the electorate was moving right kept Democrats from making the ideological compromises necessary to win. 

That’s where Republicans are today. Having failed to kill Obamacare in the courts, they’re trying to cripple it with a permanent filibuster in the Senate and a rule that only legislation backed by a majority of Republicans can be allowed to pass the House. Both gambits give legislators who represent a small minority of the electorate the ability to act as if they represent the majority. And both gambits will only solidify the GOP’s image as intolerant, arrogant, and extreme.

Last week, a guy named John McCain remarked that as much as Republicans dislike it, on the subject of health care, “elections have consequences." Another fellow, Mitt Romney, suggested that the GOP pursue a different path. “The other [option],” for eliminating Obamacare, he ventured, “would be potentially working hard to get Republicans elected.” Kill-joys. As Ted Cruz has realized, working hard to make sure Republicans don’t get elected is much more fun.