WASHINGTON — Stunt or principled stand, Sen. Ted Cruz’s talkathon against Obamacare scored 21 hours of cable television time to describe the president’s signature law in the most conservative terms. By noon Wednesday when the Texas freshman finally sat down, tea party groups supporting him were in full fundraising mode.
“Please make the most generous emergency contribution you possibly can to the Tea Party Patriots right away,” the group’s mass email urged in the final minutes of Cruz’s marathon speech. “Ted Cruz is only one man, but right now he speaks for all of us.”
Whether he spoke for other Republicans, positioned the party to gain seats in next year’s election or just burnished his own political ambitions was the subject of bitter, behind-the-scenes debate.
“What Ted has done is help change the debate in the country from Obama’s terms,” said former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., one of the original patrons of the tea party and now president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s a painful process,” he added. “You really can’t be elegant when everyone wants to keep doing what they’re doing.”
Some Republicans questioned Cruz’s motives and wondered whether he might perform an encore.
Three Republican officials with knowledge of private meetings this week said GOP senators tried twice to dissuade Cruz for the good of the party, and for his own future in the Senate. They were clear that he was making enemies. At one meeting, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., stood to face Cruz. Boozman complained his office was being flooded with bullying calls, saying he hadn’t been bullied since grade school and wouldn’t be bullied now. The officials spoke on condition they not be named because they were not authorized to discuss the exchanges.
Cruz, 42, saw himself as using his office to turn the Senate into a platform for countering President Barack Obama’s claims about his health care program at just the moment Americans were beginning to understand how Obamacare will work.
“I hope that this filibuster has helped frame the debate for the American people,” Cruz told reporters as he left the chamber shortly after noon Wednesday and headed for an interview with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
During his marathon oration, Cruz gave his colleagues an ultimatum based on this logic: Vote against moves aimed at preventing a government shut down next week or be branded a supporter of Obama’s health care law. He stuck to that theme even though every Senate Republican opposes Obamacare.
“Any senator who votes with Majority Leader Harry Reid … has made the decision to allow Obamacare to be funded,” Cruz said. “The American people will understand that.”
That wasn’t at all clear to other Senate Republicans. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to back up Cruz’s tactics. Cruz’s fellow Texas Republican, John Cornyn, sided with McConnell.
“I think we’d all be hard-pressed to explain why we were opposed to a bill that we’re in favor of,” said McConnell, who is facing a tough re-election bid and has aggressively courted tea party support.
As Cruz talked, nervous Republicans were reading a pair of polls that showed the public was split over whether to defund Obamacare as part of a budget agreement. Both the Pew Research Center and Gallup polls showed that majorities of Americans favor compromise.
In the Gallup survey, 53 percent said it was more important for political leaders to compromise in order to get things done, more than double the 25 percent who said it was more important for leaders to stick to their beliefs. The preference for compromise over rigidity held across ideological groups and among both independents and Democrats. Republicans and those who said they supported the tea party, however, split evenly between the two approaches.
The Pew finding focused specifically on this budget fight and “lawmakers who share your views.” It showed that 87 percent of people who identify themselves as tea party Republicans support the House-passed budget measure defunding the health care law. That’s 26 percentage points higher than non-tea party Republicans.
“I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton, but I can count. The defunding box canyon is a tactic that will fail and weaken our position,” tweeted Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., tweaking Cruz for his educational background.
“I think he became a de facto leader of the tea party,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said of Cruz.
It was too early to gauge how much campaign cash or other support Cruz attracted. But there were signs that the spectacle drew a crowd. C-SPAN 2 stayed with Cruz for the duration of his speech and saw increased activity on its website that indicated a more than the usual number of viewers, according to Terry Murphy, vice president of programming.
FreedomWorks, a tea party-aligned group, tweeted that 700,000 people watched its live stream of Cruz’s speech. It urged supporters to flood the Capitol’s phone lines.
In a message to Twitter followers, Tea Party Patriots equated Cruz’s stature with that of the nation’s highest-ranking Republican, Boehner, who has struggled to maintain the support of uncompromising conservatives in his caucus.
“Is the #GOP the Party of Ted Cruz or John Boehner’s freshly laundered white flag of surrender?” the group tweeted.