Opinion

Ted Cruz, ObamaCare, and the GOP's hunt for the worst loser

May the angriest candidate win!

Ted Cruz

If you want to understand the Republican primary campaign of 2016, look no further than Ted Cruz. Not because he stands even the remotest chance of becoming his party's nominee, but because his newly launched campaign says so much about who Republicans are today and what challenges they face.

When Cruz launched the first official GOP presidential campaign this week, he made clear that his bid would be based on the idea that he and he alone is the true conservative in the race. In his announcement video, Cruz emphasized again and again the fights he has led, most particularly "the historic battle to defund ObamaCare."

"Your fight is my fight," he said, and "if you want real conservative change and a proven record," then he's your man.

Anyone who has been following Cruz since he was elected two and a half years ago might ask, "A proven record of what?" Cruz hasn't written any meaningful legislation, much less gotten anything passed through Congress; he's become known mostly for encouraging members of the House to launch doomed rebellions against Republican leaders. So how does that make him the most conservative candidate, let alone one with a "proven record"?

The problem is that if you're a Republican senator during the Obama years, it hasn't been possible to amass a record of any sort; Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, the other two senators likely to enter the race, boast legislative resumes as empty as Cruz's. That outcome was all but guaranteed when the GOP decided to make unceasing opposition to anything associated with Barack Obama the touchstone of its strategy and its identity.

And nothing encapsulates that more than the Affordable Care Act. It's almost impossible to overstate the degree to which this single piece of legislation has come to dominate conservative politics in the five years since it passed. It isn't just a matter of what exactly the legislation does, or whether it is succeeding or not. The details are barely relevant. What Republican primary voters want to know is this: Just how intensely, how passionately, how fervently do you hate ObamaCare? Do you just think it's a terrible law, or does the mention of it turn you blind with rage? Do you merely believe it's destroying American health care, or do you consider it a poisoned dagger in the heart of liberty itself?

One complicating factor is that for all the fulmination and 50-plus votes to repeal the ACA, none of the Republican contenders can say they actually succeeded in doing anything about it. It's still the law of the land. Ted Cruz may talk about his leadership in "the historic battle to defund ObamaCare," but that's a battle he (and every other Republican) lost. One or two other candidates might have a little more to say, but it only goes so far. For instance, Rick Perry can proudly note that his refusal to accept the law's expansion of Medicaid kept nearly a million poor Texans from getting health insurance (congrats on that, Rick), but it hasn't stopped the law from giving insurance to millions of other Americans.

So while none of the candidates will be able to say they achieved anything but defeat in their noble battle against this socialist demon, they will all try to claim that none of their competitors can match the depths of their loathing for it. Any hint of insufficient zeal will be noted and probed; as Byron York of the conservative Washington Examiner recently reported, some conservative activists are skeptical of Jeb Bush's anti-ObamaCare bona fides, not because Bush supported the law, but because his clear statements of opposition were not numerous or well-timed enough.

That's the kind of distinction that will occupy the time and mental energy of both candidates and voters in the 2016 Republican primaries, because the substantive differences between the former are so small. The candidates all share a commitment to repealing the ACA, they all want to cut government and cut taxes, they all want a large military (even if Rand Paul is a little less eager than the others to start a new war or two), and they all oppose comprehensive immigration reform (at least until the borders are 100 percent "secure," which means forever). Pick any policy issue you like, and you'll be hard-pressed to find even the tiniest difference between them.

So if Ted Cruz is the most conservative candidate in the race, it's only a matter of attitude. But deep into the Obama years, when Republican achievements are difficult to find, attitude may be more important than ever. Though Republicans may have won back Congress and beaten back the occasional liberal initiative on an issue like gun control, the last seven years have been essentially a string of painful defeats. Barack Obama got elected, passed a stimulus and health reform and Wall Street regulations, then got re-elected. The country moved away from conservatives on gay rights. The top income tax rate went back up to Clinton-era levels, the economy continues to create jobs, and everyone seems to be talking about income inequality, which makes conservatives profoundly uncomfortable. We haven't even invaded anyone in 12 years, for Pete's sake.

An extended period in the political wilderness can be energizing — eight years of George W. Bush created the opening for the remarkable Obama candidacy of 2008, after all. But if Republicans are going to spend their time arguing over who fought hardest in defeat, this won't exactly be an inspiring campaign.

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