Is Ted Cruz winning the government shutdown battle?

Sen. Ted Cruz wants to defund Obamacare in a way that has drawn sneers even from Republicans on Capitol Hill. But they are not the group Senator Cruz wants to impress.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas leaves the floor of the Senate after skirmishing with Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada over the Affordable Care Act at the Capitol in Washington Monday.

Can Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas win a personal victory even if he loses his fight to defund Obamacare? That’s a question pundits are discussing Tuesday as the firebrand Texas senator persists in irritating his party leadership while pushing legislative tactics that almost nobody thinks will work.

The theory runs like this: Senator Cruz’s real aim is the 2016 presidential nomination. By standing up for a doomed battle against implementation of President Obama’s signature domestic achievement he’ll win kudos from tea party activists and perhaps admiration from Republican voters overall.

“In the Senate, 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,” writes the right-leaning David Frum in The Daily Beast.

Well, we’re not sure we’d go that far. But it seems likely that Cruz is solidifying his hold on the most conservative factions of his party, at the least. That’s a necessary precondition for 2016 success, since Cruz could well be competing with Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky and/or Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida for the title of tea party favorite son.

Senator Paul electrified conservatives with his filibuster against Obama administration drone policy. Cruz and ally Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah probably hope that their stand against funding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will have the same effect. It’s already winning plaudits from conservatives who consider establishment Washington Republicans to be careerist sell-outs.

“Like a light switch flipping on, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee are casting light on the scurrying of the Republican roaches in and out of the Capitol,” writes conservative pundit Erick Erickson Tuesday on RedState.

Not that those “roaches” think much of Cruz’s approach. They’re almost contemptuous of what Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee has called “the defunding box canyon . . . a tactic that will fail and weaken our position.”

At Cruz’s urging, the GOP-controlled House has passed a government spending bill that defunds the ACA. But the Senate is controlled by Democrats, and because of Senate rules, the only point at which the GOP has any chance to filibuster the bill will be before Democrats inevitably vote to strip the defund-Obamacare provision.

That means Cruz is asking his party to filibuster a bill he urged the House to pass and which calls for the very thing he says he wants to accomplish. That’s a back flip many Republican senators won’t make, especially since Mr. Obama would veto any bill with a defund provision that made it to his desk.

The futility of Cruz’s position was made clear on Monday when Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said he wouldn’t join Cruz in a filibuster.

“Senator McConnell supports the House Republicans’ bill and will not vote to block it, since it defunds Obamacare and funds the government without increasing spending by a penny,” said a McConnell aide in a statement on Monday.

And the GOP establishment might remember Cruz’s maneuvers when the 2016 campaign actually rolls around. To actually win the nomination, Cruz will have to broaden his support beyond tea party adherents, after all. For all the ups and downs of the 2012 primary race, it was establishment candidate Mitt Romney who emerged the victor.

“For those who would dismiss the importance of the inside game, 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,” write Washington Post political experts Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan.

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