Feature

Is Ted Cruz brilliant or deranged?

The Texas senator has tied himself into a pretzel trying to defund ObamaCare

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) compared Tea Party Republicans to Thelma and Louise for their "foolhardy plan to drive the economy off the cliff" by risking a government shutdown over ObamaCare.

In this drama, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is Louise, foot on the accelerator. The more moderate members of his party are like Harvey Keitel, watching in horror from a distance.

From a certain standpoint, there would appear to be no method to Cruz's madness. First, there is no scenario in which Senate Democrats and Obama accept a budget that defunds ObamaCare. Second, a government shutdown would not derail the health care law. And finally, Cruz has found himself in the strange position of trying to convince Senate Republicans to filibuster a bill he himself endorses, to prevent Reid from stripping a resolution defunding ObamaCare.

But in the world of Republican politics, Cruz may be playing to his strengths, particularly as they apply to a potential 2016 presidential run. So is Ted Cruz brilliant or deranged? Let's analyze the political wisdom of Cruz's recent actions.

He's a geniusA new CNBC poll shows that most Americans are against defunding ObamaCare if it involves a government shutdown. Another poll by Pew Research shows that most people will blame Republicans if a shutdown happens.

But Cruz doesn't care what angry voters in New York or California think. He cares about what his Tea Party base thinks. And they are the only demographic in the CNBC poll who favored defunding ObamaCare even if it means the government shuts down on Oct. 1.

To see these polls through the eyes of Cruz, "imagine what those numbers look like in Republican seats that are largely whiter and more rural than the rest of the country," writes Slate's David Weigel.

When your main concern is the prospect of a well-funded Tea Party challenger in a GOP primary, driving off a cliff makes more sense.

Even his failure to propose meaningful legislation is considered a political plus. "He seems content accomplishing nothing because, in Cruz's view of the federal government, nothing is the accomplishment," writes GQ's Jason Zengerle, who contrasts Cruz with Florida's Marco Rubio, a once promising Republican senator who took a huge hit from his base after supporting an immigration reform overhaul that stalled in the House.

By simultaneously sitting on the sidelines and putting intense pressure on his colleagues to oppose things like ObamaCare and immigration, Cruz scores political points without putting his name on legislation conservative opponents can latch onto.

As for his take-no-prisoners approach on defunding ObamaCare, he has earned high praise from other Tea Party favorites, most notably former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

"Right now, Ted Cruz is speaking for us in this Obamacare fight," she says at Breitbart. "God bless him for it."

He's an idiotWhile Cruz is great at "burnishing his credentials as someone who doesn't know or care about the ways of Washington," write The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan, his lack of tact with his Republican colleagues could hurt him in the long run.

"For those who would dismiss the importance of the inside game," Cillizza and Sullivan warn, "remember that while your own party establishment probably can't keep you from a presidential nomination, they can make it a heck of a lot harder to win one."

Then there's the damage Cruz is doing to the GOP brand, which would come back to hurt him if he ever wins a GOP presidential primary.

"The self-promotional babble of a few has become the mainstream of Republican political thought," argues former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) at The Hill. "It has marginalized the influence of the party to an appalling degree."

"The rigid stance will also cause massive collateral damage to all Republicans," Gregg continues. "Even those who may not support it will be harmed by the label of incompetence that will stick to the whole party as a consequence."

Some of Cruz's Republican colleagues in the Senate have been similarly critical of his strategy, like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who mocked Cruz's Ivy League pedigree by saying, "I didn't go to Harvard or Princeton, but I can count — the defunding box canyon is a tactic that will fail and weaken our position."

In the end, criticism probably won't have much impact on Cruz. "He has come to the reluctant but unavoidable conclusion that he is simply more intelligent, more principled, more right — in both senses of the word — than pretty much everyone else in our nation's capital," GQ's Zengerle says.

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