WASHINGTON – In the aftermath of the U.S. government shutdown and a close call with default, there is a political consensus among Democrats, many Republicans, establishment conservatives, business leaders and the inside-the-Beltway commentariat: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and tea party members in the House have done grievous harm to themselves and their brand.
They caused economic and political wreckage and got nothing for it. The silver lining, critics say, is that these right-wingers may now be chastened, and Cruz’s national ambitions have been dealt a lethal setback.
That, however, isn’t the way Deedee Vaughters and Bob Vander Plaats see things.
“We’re winning this argument and now have to go back at Obamacare and getting our fiscal house in order,” says Vaughters, a tea party activist in Aiken, South Carolina. Vander Plaats, who heads an influential family-values group in Iowa, agrees: “Ted Cruz is a rock star sucking all the energy in the conservative movement. He’s making all the right enemies with the Republican establishment, which is taking him to unprecedented heights.”
The reaction of these grass-roots activists may undercut the hopes of mainstream party leaders that the Cruz-led government shutdown — for which most Americans blamed Republicans — would have a sobering effect on the right wing, which would seek to avoid such mayhem in the future.
Yet the showdown may have only whetted the appetite for more confrontation, starting with the budget and debt battles early next year and stretching through the 2014 midterm campaigns and the 2016 presidential contest.
Some on both sides relish the fight. Congressman Peter King, an 11-term Republican from New York, says this is the time to break the tea party: He’s considering running for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination as the only guy who “came out and condemned Ted Cruz and said, ‘This is wrong.’ “
By contrast, Erick Erickson, the influential conservative blogger, sees a “break” in the opposite direction. “There will not necessarily be a new party from it,” he wrote, “but there will be a fundamentally altered party of new faces fueled by a grass-roots movement now able to connect with each other and independent from Wall Street and K Street funders.”
In Washington, this divide will fuel the next budget and debt fights. Some in the party say the recent debacle will cause Republicans to be more selective and skillful in challenging the administration.
“There will be an endgame strategy next time, and we have something to trade that Democrats want: a loosening of the sequester spending cuts in return for significant entitlement reform,” predicts anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. (His transformation from bomb-throwing outsider to establishment conservative figure reflects the momentous change in the Republican Party.)
For the right-wing activists in South Carolina and Iowa, as well as some prominent tea party House members, the marching orders are: Don’t let up, especially on the Affordable Care Act.
“We’ve made real progress, and next time we have to reset and refocus on the debt and Obamacare,” Rep. Ted Yoho, the freshman Republican from Florida, said in an interview last week in his House office, hours before he voted against the deal that ended the government shutdown and prevented default.
The Oct. 16 votes exposed the Republican Party’s fractures. In the House, members of the caucus cheered Speaker John Boehner for holding them together, then 62 percent of them voted against the deal he endorsed.
In the Senate, Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul — all potential 2016 presidential aspirants — voted against the accord.
These intraparty animosities will be fought out legislatively and electorally next year, but any resolution seems impossible before the 2016 presidential race.
Cruz, who is despised by a number of his Senate colleagues and much of the party establishment, could be the most formidable right-wing candidate in a generation. He is tougher and more politically skillful than Steve Forbes or Rick Santorum.
The only way to avoid a bloodbath may be if a candidate emerges from outside Washington who has credibility on both sides — for example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
In the meantime, Republicans who believe the end of the shutdown also ended the political storms should remember the message of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part III”: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.