Is Ted Cruz Doomed to a Political Flameout Like Michele Bachmann’s?

The Texas senator is well on his way to becoming the 2016 election cycle’s Bachmann with his stunts and confrontations. But if he wants the GOP nomination, says Jamelle Bouie, he needs some establishment support.

Sometime near the end of his 21-hour speech, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) took a question from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who offered him a quick reminder of what was really happening: “This is not a filibuster. This is an agreement you and I made to talk.”

There’s nothing wrong with stunts in politics. But unlike Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster against drone strikes and the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, or Wendy Davis’s against an anti-abortion rights bill and misogyny in the Texas state capital, Cruz wasn’t working toward a concrete goal or trying to highlight a particular issue. The Affordable Care Act is law. It was passed by large majorities in both chambers of Congress and signed by the president of United States. It survived a Supreme Court challenge and was relitigated in a national election. Yes, voters don’t know much about the law, but they know where both sides stand: Republicans oppose it, Democrats don’t.

At most, Cruz gave a long and inconsequential speech as a capstone to his doomed effort to defund Obamacare, which has earned him the ire of colleagues in both chambers of Congress. My colleague David Frum argues that this is a net positive for the junior senator from Texas, especially if his goal is to become the recognized leader of the conservative movement. “In the Senate,” writes Frum, “Cruz may look right now the very opposite of shrewd. But the view Cruz cares about is the view from Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina—and from there he looks like a hero to many of the Republicans who’ll choose the party’s nominee in 2016.”

I have no doubt that Cruz will succeed in raising his star with movement conservatives, who hunger for someone to take the fight to Washington and stand up to Obama. As Frum notes, Cruz is “a hugely smart, highly focused political player, with a clear-eyed view of political realities.” But this isn’t as big an accomplishment as it sounds. A large swath of the Republican base is eager to give money and enthusiasm to whomever piques liberals the most. It’s part of why Michele Bachmann was such a fundraising powerhouse. She didn’t necessarily command respect, nor was she poised to achieve genuine power. But she annoyed Democrats and satisfied the huge conservative market for people, lawmakers or otherwise, who attack President Obama with little regard to how it sounds to anyone outside the bubble.

If Cruz wants to become the Bachmann of the current election cycle, he’s well on his way to success—and a healthy war chest for his next campaign. But if his goal is to become the next presidential nominee of the Republican Party, he may have hurt his cause with the last two weeks of stunts and confrontations.

In the lineup of Republican presidential candidates, Cruz is the insurgent. He’s likely to occupy the same general space as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 or former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in 2012. And that isn’t a bad place to be. As we saw in both of those cases, intense grassroots energy is enough to deliver key wins, generate cash, and stay competitive. But it’s not enough to win. To do that, you also need support from the establishment.

“Establishment” here doesn’t mean “moderate.” Given the party’s wide opposition to key parts of the welfare state, there’s not much ideological distance between Cruz and the assorted officials, lawmakers, donors, and activists who form the GOP’s leadership. “Establishment” is simply the institutions of the Republican Party and the individuals who lead and manage them. These are the men and women in Washington who raise and donate money, conduct research, and consult and build field operations; and those across the country who lead state party organizations, recruit local politicians, and hold office in their communities.

The most successful political insurgents, including the current president, entered the game with support from at least a faction of the establishment. In 2008, Obama earned his status as a top challenger to Hillary Clinton with grassroots support, a shrewd team of campaign operators, and allies within the establishment class of the Democratic Party, including Reid and local leaders throughout key primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina.

If Cruz wants to follow in the footsteps of the former senator from Illinois—or his own inspiration, Ronald Reagan, who waged an insurgency that nearly succeeded in 1976—he’ll have to position himself on the inside in addition to staging political stunts. As it stands, he’s not doing too well with the former. He’s alienated more than his fair share of his Republican colleagues. Indeed, if there was anything truly noteworthy about his speech on Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s how it was followed by John McCain, who ripped it to shreds.