Column: The Cruzifiction of the GOP
By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — When a poll came out last week showing that the government shutdown was putting Republican Mike Coffman in danger of losing his Colorado congressional seat, the lawmaker responded with the serenity of martyrs through the ages.
“Whatever the consequences of doing what’s right,” he told a Denver TV station, “I’m willing to take those consequences.”
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
Skeptics warned from the start that it was a suicide mission for Republicans to shut down the federal government in a long-shot attempt to defund Obamacare. Now that such dire predictions have come to pass, the lawmakers who engineered the shutdown are getting the conflagration — and the martyrdom — they sought.
Call it the Cruzifiction of the GOP.
At least so far, the standoff has been a political bloodbath for Republicans. And maybe that’s exactly what was needed to right the political system: The effort to gut Obamacare had to crash like this so that Republican leaders and lawmakers would find the courage to stand up to tea-party toughs, and so that business leaders would decide to stop funding a small band of right-wing activists whose interests are antithetical to their own.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll out Thursday night found that Americans, by 53 percent to 31 percent, blame the Republican Party for the shutdown more than President Obama — worse even than Republicans fared during the 1995-96 shutdown that also proved ruinous to their party.
The poll, confirming earlier results, found the Republican Party and the tea party had both reached all-time lows. Americans now favor a Democratic Congress to a Republican Congress by eight percentage points. And the percentage of Americans who think Obamacare is a good idea is up seven points from last month. Seventy percent say Republicans are putting politics ahead of the good of the country.
The small-but-vocal tea party had been seeking just such a confrontation since the 2010 election, and they opposed compromises by Republican leaders that postponed the showdown until now. Conservative groups that advocated for a standoff spoke openly about their motives. At a breakfast with reporters Wednesday, Michael Needham, chief executive of the conservative group Heritage Action, freely admitted that he was “pretty optimistic” that we will soon see a crackup of the old Republican order.
The lure of martyrdom has always been part of the tea party’s creed. In rally posters, online and in speeches, there are invocations of Thomas Jefferson’s quotation: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Perhaps now the tea party’s manure can be used to grow a healthier political system. There are encouraging signs that the shutdown has awakened the rest of the electorate to the outsized clout exercised by this minority.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who just nine months into the job led the shutdown strategy that has caused so many in his party to be Cruzified, has seen his reputation take a 16-point negative turn in the national Gallup poll since June. Likewise, Cruz’s partner in the rebellion, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, has seen a 20-point negative swing in his home state over the same time period.
The shutdown and debt-limit standoff, by crushing consumer confidence and roiling markets, has brought home to business leaders the realization that they don’t have common cause with the tea-party activists they’ve been supporting. My Washington Post colleague Philip Rucker reported that Michigan businessman Brian Ellis is launching a Republican primary challenge to Rep. Justin Amash, a prominent tea party figure. Meantime, The New York Times reported last week about the possibility of “open warfare” between business and the tea party, noting that several trade associations are weighing the financing of primary campaigns against Republicans responsible for the shutdown.
Even the infamous Koch brothers, financiers of the tea party, are distancing themselves from the shutdown contretemps. Koch Industries announced last week that it “has not taken a position on the legislative tactic of tying the continuing resolution to defunding Obamacare nor have we lobbied on legislative provisions defunding Obamacare.”
The Boston Globe recently reported that David Koch gave MIT $20 million for a child-care facility, because “I got a tear in my eye” hearing about researchers’ need for child care. Maybe the lachrymose Koch will weep for his country when he realizes the economic destruction caused by the groups he bankrolled.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.