The Corner

Politics & Policy

Ted Cruz, the Government Shutdowns, and the Road to Trump

This Megan McArdle Twitter thread really gets to some popular misconceptions about the Ted Cruz–led government shutdown of 2013. McArdle strongly implies (I think) that the shutdown cost Republicans “their best chance to repeal/delay Obamacare.” I don’t think that is what happened. I don’t think there was any chance of Obamacare’s being repealed or replaced after Obama was reelected in 2012. The legacy of the 2013 shutdown was in how it made Ted Cruz’s reputation — for better and for worse.

The first is just chronology. Cruz wasn’t elected a senator until 2012, and he didn’t take office until 2013. By that time, Obama was in his second term and no longer had to worry about reelection. As analysts pointed out at the time, there was no way that Obama was going to allow any changes to his signature law — unless it was on his terms. The only way Republicans could have forced a repeal of Obamacare was through a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. That is why Cruz’s shutdown was so obviously futile except as a self-aggrandizing political stunt.

But just because it was futile doesn’t mean it was harmful to the fortunes of the Republican party. The shutdown caused a short-term dip in the party’s popularity, but it didn’t stop the GOP from gaining nine Senate and 13 House seats in the 2014 midterm elections. The Republicans even made huge gains in the state legislatures.

The Cruz shutdown didn’t hurt the Republicans electorally but it did affect the party. The shutdown created an incredible amount of hostility toward Cruz from the party’s leadership. The shutdown gave Cruz a reputation as a rebel in a presidential election cycle in which that was an asset, but my sense is that many Republican-leaners who consume most of their news through mainstream media decided that he was the devil.

The depth of elite hostility toward Cruz helps explain why the GOP acted so abnormally in in response to Trump. Trump’s 2016 candidacy bears some resemblance to Jesse Jackson’s in 1988. Jackson was another guy who had never held government office and seemed to be running a stunt candidacy. While the field was split, Jackson could win Democratic primaries, but as the field consolidated, the last of the anti-Jackson candidates was able to rally the majority of the voters. Trump had a much broader base than Jackson did, but he received only 45 percent of the vote in a party whose conventional politicians failed to consolidate against him.

It was clear from Iowa that Cruz had the best chance to stop Trump, but it meant adding his base of highly observant Evangelicals and highly ideological conservatives to more secular, moderately conservative voters who generally liked the Republican establishment. Together, these two factions might have been able to stop Trump’s populist coalition.

But these two anti-Trump factions only rarely got together. By March 8 (Super Tuesday), Marco Rubio had won the plurality of the vote in only one state of the first 15. John Kasich hadn’t won anywhere. Cruz was the only remaining candidate with a chance to stop Trump.

The next move was for the Republican congressional caucus and the governors to consolidate around Cruz and make the case against Trump. But they wouldn’t make that move in any kind of organized way because too many hated Cruz.

The one state where the GOP establishment threw in with Cruz was Wisconsin. My reading of the numbers is that it made a difference. As Henry Olsen points out, the largest group of Republican primary voters self-identify as “somewhat conservative.” Cruz won 23 percent of those voters in Michigan and 34 percent of them in Indiana. With the enthusiastic help of the state’s party leadership, Cruz won 47 percent of Wisconsin’s somewhat conservative voters. He even won 29 percent of Wisconsin’s moderate Republican primary voters.

That might not have been entirely transferable to other states. Most Republican governors didn’t have Scott Walker’s connection to his state’s GOP electorate, but it seems that some fraction of Republican voters was open to a message that Cruz was acceptable and Trump wasn’t, if it came from GOP leaders they respected (and this was the segment of Republican voters who most respected the party leadership). The combination of an unambiguous embrace of Cruz and a rejection of Trump was the key. A perfunctory endorsement of Cruz (like the one issued by Mike Pence) wasn’t enough. It had to be coupled with a thorough and enthusiastic critique of Trump. Even some moderate Republican voters seemed to have been open to such a message.

But it had to start on March 9 at the latest and, outside Wisconsin, it didn’t happen at all. If anything, the reverse happened. Former speaker of the House John Boehner publicly called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh.” You could hardly have gotten a stronger message from the Republican establishment that Trump was at least as acceptable as Cruz.

The enduring elite bitterness toward Cruz – and the consequences of that heedless, narcissistic bitterness – is the one legacy of the 2013 government shutdown. That bitterness helped make Trump president.