At 2:41 p.m. on Tuesday, Ted Cruz buttoned his suit coat and stood up from his desk in the Senate chamber to seize the spotlight. “I rise today in opposition to Obamacare,” the freshman Texas conservative began, serving notice that he intended to speak “until I am no longer able to stand.” When he entered a few minutes earlier, a clutch of senior Republican colleagues huddling near the door had silently slipped out the room. All Cruz had with him were a black three-ring binder of notes, a bespectacled aide and Republican Senator Mike Lee, his partner in the doomed quest to defund Barack Obama’s health-care law. He was virtually alone.
Which is, of course, just how Ted Cruz wanted it. The moment marked the climax of a spreading rift between Cruz, the combative champion of grassroots conservatives, and most of the rest of the Republican Party. Around Washington, consultants warned that Cruz’s antics tarnished the GOP brand. Inside the Capitol, colleagues grumbled that his showboating boxed in House Republicans by delaying Senate Democrats’ inevitable victory. “I know how this movie ends,” groused Senator John McCain. “I know all the scenes.”
Cruz’s marathon speech Tuesday won’t rewrite the ending of the battle over Obamacare. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats will vote to advance the process of stripping out the provision to defund the healthcare law, and Cruz can do nothing to stop it. But even as he loses the battle in the Senate, Cruz is winning the battle that matters to him, which is the fight to establish himself as the purest conservative in the Republican Party. Ted Cruz may be the most unpopular man in Washington at the moment. But no one, save perhaps Rand Paul, has won bigger this year.
In the scrambled logic of today’s Republican Party, a senator’s standing in Washington is inversely proportional to his reputation back home. Suffering the slings and arrows of critics in the capital is a good way to win the approbation of the people who matter. For every fight picked, for every feather ruffled, Cruz’s profile climbs. Over the past few months, as conservative consultants bashed his plan to use the budget deadline as a spur to force a fight over Obamacare, Cruz’s numbers have risen in the early polls of 2016 GOP presidential contenders. In June, he sat at 3% in a Reuters poll; this month, a pair of surveys from CNN and PPP have put him at 7% and 10%, respectively. And he is just getting started.
Some colleagues openly fumed about Cruz’s Obamacare posturing. “There’s no end result other than shutting the government down, for which Republicans are going to be blamed,” said Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. “We’re in the minority. We have to find a way of standing up for our principles without immolating ourselves in front of everybody.” Others just seemed flummoxed. “This is not Gilbert and Sullivan,” Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski declared in an acid condemnation of Cruz’s tactics, “This is the real deal.”
What these senators might not have realized is the audience for Cruz’s theatrics is not the members of the Senate at all. It is evangelical groups in Iowa, New Hampshire libertarians, South Carolina county chairmen, and the thousands of other activists whose ardor can lift a presidential campaign. Cruz’s path to the 2016 GOP nomination, which he is widely believed to be pursuing, runs through the conservative base. And so that is who he plays to. In contrast, Florida Senator Marco Rubio—another high-profile advocate of the risky fight over defunding Obamacare—was careful to keep himself out of the spotlight. That’s because Rubio’s best strategy is to nurture his crossover appeal, and stitch together a coalition from both the base and the elites.
Cruz has a way of being broadly combative while avoiding direct confrontation. His speech Tuesday was like one extended subtweet; he repeatedly called out unnamed colleagues as cowards. “As is usually the case, the Senate floor is empty. Everyone’s schedules are too busy to stop Obamacare,” he needled them. Irking the rest of the Senate is not the collateral damage of his strategy; it is the whole plan. “All those comments only empower him,” Republican strategist Dave Carney told me last summer as I reported a magazine profile of Cruz. “The mark of a scarlet letter today is being part of that club.”
In other words, Cruz sees most Senate peers not as potential friends, but as useful foils. Nor was his plan to outmaneuver Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who deftly slalomed around Cruz’s procedural efforts to delay a vote that will proceed as scheduled on Wednesday. “Most Americans couldn’t give a flying flick about a bunch of politicians in Washington,” Cruz said. But the “surrender caucus,” as he once called them, is Cruz’s biggest asset. As long as he can portray them as spineless, he gets to stand tall.
MORE: Watch here to see how Ted Cruz humorously deals with a filibuster: