The various responses to Ted Cruz’s Defund ObamaCare campaign are as enlightening with regard to their content as they are for who’s responding. For example, take Senator Richard Burr’s (R-NC) March 13th endorsement of the defund strategy and compare it to his more recent suggestion that “it’s the dumbest idea [he’s] ever heard of.” Also consider McCain aides leaking the fact that their boss “f-ing hates” Cruz. But note that McCain doesn’t hate Cruz for his policies, but rather for his “style” (read: the freshman needs to learn his place). Top Republicans also sent opposition research to Fox News host Chris Wallace in advance of his Sunday interview with Cruz so that he could “hammer” Cruz.
After their performance in the last election, it was easy to believe that the GOP didn’t have any fight left in it. It turns out that wasn’t quite true. They really know how to roll out the big guns when the target is one of their own. Think about it. When was the last time John McCain really went after somebody who didn’t have an R after his name? The reason for this isn’t so much a clash between the more liberal and more conservative wings of the party, but rather because the party lacks leadership.
The current “leaders” of the Republican Party have been in office for 20, 30, 40 years. Tenure in office isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it becomes detrimental when it causes the office-holder to become complacent. You fall into a rut. You run a token campaign every two or six years, get your cushy office with a staff to attend to your every need, lots of people like you, and every now and then you get to sit for a TV interview. Not a bad life. Maybe you’re not in the majority party, but that’s ok because it means you don’t have any actual responsibility for anything. You can just put your life on cruise control, and ride off into the sunset a wizened, old statesman who never really accomplished much but was able to live pretty comfortably.
But then along come these new kids who actually want to do something. You don’t necessarily disagree with their policy aims, but accomplishing those aims would involve doing some actual work. You would actually have to take a stand on something (rather than just taking a series of meaningless symbolic votes whose only purpose is to provide content for your auto-pilot re-election campaign) There’s even the possibility that some people may not like you if you stake out a position. You might not get as many TV interviews and a couple angry people might call your staffers (your staffers would actually bear the brunt of whatever decision you make, but receiving their reports would make you really uncomfortable). There’s also the fact that most of your other Senator friends feel exactly the same way you do (the fact that Cruz is basically doing this by himself is often presented as a reason not to do it). So, even if you do decide to do something, you’ll likely be doing it alone (and who wants to do that?). In short, you’re afraid to lead. So what do you do? Take down the kids (or “wacko birds” to borrow McCain’s parlance) that are rocking the boat. Publicly oppose their efforts in Congress. Leak incriminating evidence to the press. Have your aides run around and say lots of nasty things about them. Then you can go back to living your dull, safe, comfortable life.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling this way, but then you probably should have thought about that before you signed up for a job where the only job requirement is to be a leader. You were elected to make hard decisions. You were elected to stand alone. You were elected to bear the burdens that elected representatives must often carry. Ted Cruz understand this. Mike Lee understands this. Rand Paul understand this. Most of the rest of the party does not. To put it in context, the Founding Fathers risked everything they had (“[their] lives, [their] fortunes, and [their] sacred honor”) for an idea that had a significantly smaller chance of success than today’s Defund movement. Today’s representatives are simply being asked to make a vote that makes them a little uncomfortable. Is that really asking too much?
The core of the Republican Party’s problems do not involve its outreach efforts to Hispanics or its stance on social issues. Its problem is that it doesn’t know how to lead. Until the party is willing to take bold, principled risks, it won’t win another election. Having members of the party running around sabotaging each other does nothing but reinforce the image of the GOP as a ship without a captain. It wouldn’t be that hard to change this and, the effect would be more powerful than the millions of dollars Crossroads sank into its really effective 2012 ad campaign. The old guard simply has to let those who want to lead, lead. The irony is that the harder the GOP tries to make people like it, the faster they will abandon it. If the party wants to become electorally viable again, it must stake out controversial positions and be willing to take risks. Moderates don’t make history.