Monday, February 17, 2014

Cruz May Figure He Can't Lose


Feliz did not like having his photo taken
My Dad used to have a big, lovable collie.

His name was Feliz, which is Spanish for "happy."  And he was, for the most part, a happy, pure-breed, thick-haired, long-nosed canine.

Dad rescued him from an animal shelter, and while he got along with other dogs, Feliz didn't particularly seem to desire their company.  He did, however, enjoy stirring them up.  Every evening, Dad would walk Feliz through their quiet, tree-lined subdivision, and he told me that Feliz soon learned which houses also had dogs.  But he hardly ever barked at them.

He and Dad would be strolling along, and as they approached another house with a dog, Feliz would start whining, in a high-pitched whimper through his partly-closed mouth.  If the other dog was outside, it would start barking and barking in an annoying way, but Feliz would never bark back.  He'd simply keep trotting along, no longer whining himself, with what Dad was sure was a satisfied smirk on his emotive face.

Every now and then, I'd take Feliz out for his evening constitutional, and sure enough, Dad was right.  It was uncanny how Feliz had learned which housesholds had dogs, and at each one, he'd whimper as we got close.  The other dogs would create all sorts of racket, but Feliz would walk silently by, sometimes panting with a trace of gusto, smug, and ever so pleased with himself.

You could almost hear him saying, "I sure got them going!"

Listening to the howls of frustration emanating from Washington, DC, last week over Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and what was purportedly his crisis-inducing stalling tactics over yet another debt limit vote, I started thinking about my father's since-departed collie, Feliz.  And how much like him Cruz is.

"Watching the chaos from the side of the chamber," writes Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, "was the man who caused it: Cruz, his hands in his pants pockets and a satisfied grin on his face."

Cruz has intentionally, energetically, and unapologetically positioned himself as the spoiler of whatever placid waters people expect from the United States Senate.  He doesn't need to give fiery speeches, although he does love to grandstand, like he did during his filibuster debacle last fall.  He doesn't grovel at the feet of committee heads or Republican party stalwarts, nor does he tirelessly cajole, persuade, or build consensus behind the scenes.

He knows where the other dogs live, and he knows it doesn't take much to cause a ruckus among them.  Problem is, Cruz isn't just walking by their houses.  And the ruckus won't just die down as his scent fades from the air as he continues down the street.  This is big-time national politics with which Cruz is toying, even if he doesn't see it that way.  He believes he's teasing a more responsible method of governance out of Washington's jaded politicians, regardless of whether he's causing a lot of collateral damage along the way.

Conventional Republicans have become exasperated with his tactics.  After his little sideshow in the Senate chamber last week, which so disturbed his fellow lawmakers that they held their vote under a cloak of unusual obscurity, even the conservative Wall Street Journal chided Cruz for the unconventionally risky way he wields his unconventional influence.

It's been said that as a first-termer, Cruz was expected to take his traditional place along with all the other newly-elected junior senators on the back benches, and submissively engage in time-honored tutorials of developing one's power by watching their established party's operatives.  He was to be seen but not heard, kind of like a child at Thanksgiving dinner.

But part of the Tea Party mindset is that they don't have time to play by Washington's slow-moving rules.  Our country's fiscal crisis is red-hot and boiling over with debt and flagrant over-spending.  Protocols are for the pretentious, not the new patriots.  Committee assignments are for wusses, not warriors.  Building consensus is what got us into the messes we're in.  Belligerence is their new political currency on Capitol Hill, and Cruz is its treasurer.

Old guard Republicans say they're stunned that Cruz and his fellow Tea Partiers show no interest in doing business as usual in Washington.  But if the old guard assumed the new breed was merely brandishing a naive bravado at first, they should realize by now that it's probably their only game plan, much to the delight of Democrats - and, it must be said, of their own die-hard Tea Party fans.  After all, Cruz and his cohort didn't get to Washington without at least a few voters.

When it comes to Cruz in particular, it's hard not to admire his chutzpah.  Who can argue that Washington hasn't spent our country into a deep hole?  Who knows how much longer we can market our debt and postpone the reckoning of its payment?  What conventional politician in Washington isn't more eager to win re-election instead of achieving substantive spending cuts?

Instead, into a world of self-preservation and partisan sanctimony has entered a group of hyper-zealous radicals less interested in power than principle.  Debt is bad, they insist, and spending is perilous.  Whatever it takes, both of them need to be reduced.  And while plenty of politicians before them have won office patronizing a similar mantra, this new group actually has no interest in playing by rules they believe have contributed to our nation's problems in the first place.

And when it comes to not playing by the rules, or at least playing the established rules off of each other to acrimonious effect, Cruz is the big dog in the doghouse.

To a certain extent, Cruz's logic is understandable.  If something is broken, can it be fixed with the same tools that broke it?  And even if it could, does America have the time traditionalists want it to take to get fixed?  Yes, it's admirable that Cruz claims he's not beholden to anybody on Capitol Hill, and that if he only gets one term in office, he's going to do as much as he thinks is necessary to fix things, be he ever so unpopular.  In a way, his is a refreshingly American individualism in a sea of dysfunctional group-think, oblation, and unaccountability.

Unfortunately for Cruz - and us, actually - politics in a democratic republic is not designed to function the way Tea Partiers want it to function.  For all of his individualistic zeal, hearkening back to a nostalgic patriotism, Cruz needs to be building consensus, not division.   However ugly it is, politics is about majority rule, not minority bickering.  If you don't have the votes for something, you may be able to whine and whimper on the periphery, and pull some rules out of the protocols to delay, destabilize, or denigrate, but petulance in politics rarely approximates far-reaching, long-term success.  Sure, the Tea Party is solidifying its reputation among its constituency with antics like Cruz's, but what are they accomplishing relative to their goals?

For one thing, while Tea Partiers may claim the allegiance of about twenty to thirty percent of American voters - depending on the survey, such an allegiance tends to come from the same group of people who'd probably vote for traditional Republicans over Democrats anyway.  So, what's really being gained?  This doesn't make the Tea Party irrelevant in terms of its political influence, but it should make them political realists when it comes to crunching numbers for votes.  Remember, we are an approximation of a democratic republic, and votes are the grease for our political machine.  Not altruism.  No matter how credible the need to fix our economic ship of state may be.

As smart as the Harvard-educated Cruz claims to be, shouldn't he realize that persuasion, not belligerence, would be a more prudent course for him and the Tea Party?  Don't just be mad.  Don't just be reckless.  Don't just stand up to tenured officials because you don't care about committee appointments or incumbency.  If you're as smart as Cruz claims to be, shouldn't you be able to build arguments so you can persuade?  Persuasion helps win votes.  Persuasion, however, is a lot harder than grandstanding.  Persuasion is the process of finding areas of common agreement and shared values among people who might otherwise vote against you, and building off of those shared values to forge new areas of agreement.

Meanwhile, aside from some snarky headlines for himself, what's Cruz been accomplishing lately?

It could almost be argued that Cruz isn't playing the role of a politician because he has no interest in being a politician.  Even bad politicians, if they're genuinely political, understand the need for compromise and working across party lines on at least some legislation.  Cruz, on the other hand, flatly denies any merit to compromise.  Capitulation?  Yes, as long as it's done by his opponents; but not compromise.

In fact, the antics of many Tea Partiers could even suggest that few of them have their sights set merely on politics.  How many of them are actually participants in a dog show, preening before sponsors like the Koch brothers, and fetching legislative sticks for secretive One Percenters in the hopes of winning highly-coveted and profoundly lucrative jobs as lobbyists for them along Washington's notorious K Street?  Would that explain the ambivalence Cruz and his cohorts display towards working for substantive change here and now, deferring signs of any true progress until they're safely ensconced on the payrolls of their corporate benefactors?  Might what the rest of us are witnessing today be merely window dressing while Tea Party favorites test limits and tweak rhetoric while less ambitious Republicans spin their wheels in the sandstorm?

Time will likely be all that will tell regarding whether or not this is one disingenuous ruse by Tea Partiers, or whether there really is some merit to their belligerence.  Anyway, it won't be like conventional Republicans and Democrats haven't also played the "former legislator" card in their new jobs as influential K Street actors.  Perhaps what's most disappointing about Washington today is that even if you're a bad politician, you can still get handsomely rewarded by others who want to play the game.  And in that regard, Cruz's future currently looks pretty bright, regardless of what his fellow Republicans think of him.

Nevertheless, something tells me none of this is the Washington envisioned by the Founding Fathers whom Tea Partiers like Cruz incessantly invoke with reverence.

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