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Looking to 2016, Rubio and Paul rush to join Cruz

by David Nakamura

The Washington Post

Sen. Ted Cruz might have alienated the Republican establishment with his all-night polemic against the Affordable Care Act. But that doesn’t mean the caustic Texan didn’t win any friends in Washington. As Cruz’s 21-hour speech dragged on, GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky were among the supporters who joined him on the Senate floor.

The tea party trio — all potential 2016 White House contenders — lavished praise on each other in a bid to attract support and attention from the GOP’s conservative base, concluding that speaking to frustrated Americans outside Washington was more important than kowtowing to party leaders.

Their calculation made clear that GOP officials who are pushing the party to adopt a more moderate tone in the wake of back-to-back presidential defeats will have difficulty convincing the party’s brightest stars to give up the populist anti-Washington rhetoric and rigid ideology that vaulted them to prominence.

“It’s easy for those of us who have been here a long time to believe that Washington knows best, and that the rest of the country is better, as they say of small children, to be seen but not heard,” Cruz said during his extended speech. “It’s time to make Washington listen.”

Cruz and Utah Sen. Mike Lee wanted fellow Republicans to block a House spending bill as a way of foiling Democratic plans to restore funding for President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform, increasing the chances of a government shutdown.

But establishment figures such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Texas Sen. John Cornyn declined to support the strategy, which The Wall Street Journal editorial page dubbed a “charge into the fixed bayonets.” The spending bill was now on a path to be approved by the Senate this weekend without the language to strip funding from the Affordable Care Act’s programs.

“Ted Cruz probably helped himself, while he hurt conservatism and hurt the Republican Party,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, who criticized Cruz in an essay in Commentary magazine. “I think he looks foolish because it was so transparently obvious this thing was a ruse, a mirage that could never work.”

Yet the extent to which Cruz’s tactics appealed to grass-roots GOP voters was evident in the way Rubio and Paul rushed to join him.

Rubio, who spoke on the floor three times during Cruz’s marathon talk, appeared particularly eager to shore up his credentials with the tea party. His approval ratings in the GOP tumbled during the spring when he played a leading role in a bipartisan Senate immigration plan that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Cruz and Paul both voted against the Senate bill, which has since stalled in the GOP-controlled House, and Rubio has turned his attention to winning back the conservatives he alienated. In addition to railing against the health care law, he also blocked the nomination of a gay black judge from Miami to the federal court, which some interpreted as a nod to social conservatives.

David Kochel, who advised Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in Iowa, praised Cruz and Rubio for fighting hard against Obama’s health care program.

But the challenge for Republicans, Kochel said, is to “not be defined as a party by what we’re against, particularly when it is related to Barack Obama. Obama has run his last campaign, and our party has to be about ideas and how to better advance the cause of liberty, freedom, economic security and national security.”

Paul has clashed frequently with establishment Republicans on national security and foreign policy, angering hawks such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina with his libertarian, noninterventionist bent.

Cruz said during his speech, which ended Wednesday, that he was inspired by Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director last spring over concerns about the Obama administration’s use of unmanned drone aircraft.

Paul’s filibuster came on the same day that McCain, Graham and other GOP senators had a private dinner with Obama to discuss the budget. McCain dubbed Paul and Cruz “wacko birds,” a remark for which he later apologized. Brennan was ultimately confirmed.

GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, who advised McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, criticized Cruz for being willing to risk a U.S. credit default in the name of stopping the health care law. But Schmidt said he understood the political rationale for Cruz’s strategy.

“Default is just disastrous politically for Republicans and would have profound economic consequences. But in the case of Ted Cruz, he would be held blameless by the part of the base of the Republican Party that gives him his political energy,” Schmidt said.

“The reality is that no matter how much derision is heaped on him in Washington, D.C., it puts him among the big three at the starting line” for the 2016 GOP primary, he said.