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The Desperate Courage of the Republican Populists

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The most infamous thing Andrew Jackson never said was “One man with courage makes a majority.” It’s the sort of tough-as-nails line Old Hickory might have said (in practice, he was more blunt and less courteous: “I have only two regrets: that I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun”), but it was actually, in the little ironies of history, a line derived from prominent biographer James Parton, who put the line on the frontispiece of his 1860 biography of Jackson: “Desperate Courage Makes One a Majority.” It was not intended as a compliment: Parton, an urbane New England immigrant who wrote bestselling biographies of Jefferson, Franklin, and Horace Greeley, thought of Jackson as a confounding bull-headed idiot.

One detects similar frustrations in the profiles of Ted Cruz, the Senator who perhaps most embodies Parton’s line today – the latest of which comes from Jason Zengerle in GQ. The difference in reading profiles of Cruz and of the other populists in today’s Republican Party is the barely disguised bile that rises in the back of the profiler’s throat in reaction to his various lines.

Even Cruz’s favorite footwear, a pair of black ostrich-skin cowboy boots, serves as an advertisement for his credentials and connections. “These are my argument boots,” he told me one morning this summer as we rode the subway car beneath the Capitol to a vote on the Senate floor. “When I was Texas solicitor general, I did every argument in these boots. The one court that I was not willing to wear them in was the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was because my former boss and dear friend William Rehnquist was still chief justice. He and I were very close—he was a wonderful man—but he was very much a stickler for attire.” It was only after Rehnquist died that Cruz felt comfortable wearing his cowboy boots in the Supreme Court—and only then because John Roberts (“a friend for many years”) blessed it.

Perhaps the frustrating part is that Cruz’s biography and resume lend itself so well not to populism, but to the sort of Beltway transformation that comes for all elevated to the Senate, or used to: delusions of statesmanship that motivate you to passionate embrace of compromise as not a way of getting things done, but as a primary ideological motivation. Cruz’s Cuba-Princeton-Harvard Law track is ideal for the strange new respect which makes for excellent column fodder. Look at how difficult it is for Al Hunt to pull off the same thing with Jeff Flake, who went to (shudder) BYU. But Cruz is insistent that he’s not kidding about all this, and that makes him all the more frustrating.

This brings us to Ross Douthat’s piece, which speaks to the more legitimate type of frustration: the feeling among many smart observers on the right that Cruz-Mike Lee-Rand Paul and the rest of their defunding band are ruining their best opportunity to remake the coalition with all this Once More Unto The Breach stuff:

[D]espite the best efforts of the Lee tax plan’s admirers, the party’s populists didn’t make headlines last week on that issue. Instead, Lee and Paul were in the news — with the ubiquitous, less innovative junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz — because they’re part of the so-called “defund Obamacare” effort, an elaborate game of make-believe in which Republicans are supposed to pretend, for the sake of political leverage, that they’ll actually shut down the government if the president refuses to go along with the repeal of his own signature legislative achievement.

While it’s certainly an interesting policy proposal, I kind of doubt Lee’s tax plan would’ve gotten much attention in the absence of the current showdown anyway – it’s a marker for future presidential candidates to consider, just like any policy proposal is in this moment when nothing is getting done in DC.

Yet this gets me back to the same problem I’ve had with all this defund/delay bickering from the get-go: how different is this from what House leadership had planned all along? How is seeking leverage over a shutdown conservative crazy talk, but seeking similar leverage over a default is not? The Williamsburg Accord Boehner crafted put the House on a path toward this type of brinkmanship anyway: a short term debt ceiling increase tied to Obamacare delay and a host of other measures, using the only leverage the House has at its disposal to force Obama to the negotiating table. The Senate leadership had already backed such a concept on more than one occasion. Is that really crazier than what Cruz, Lee, and Paul are doing? Hardly – they’re just as open about the real aim being compelling negotiation.

[Paul] offered some blunt realism in Michigan earlier this weekend on the ongoing battle over funding for the Affordable Care Act, explaining — as he has done repeatedly in recent weeks — that Republicans are unlikely to be able to defund “Obamacare,” though he personally plans to vote against spending money to implement the law… Paul suggested that conservatives could declare victory if they are able to force changes to the law, even if they are unable to defund it. His suggestions: repealing the medical device tax, delaying implementation of the individual mandate, and revising the law’s treatment of insurance for part-time workers.

In other words: it’s the same kind of approach the House was supposedly going to pursue all along, combined with the same confrontational populism Paul deployed in his rhetorical assault on drones: not with the unrealistic aim of changing policy, but with the more realistic aim of focusing the country on one awful policy and changing the conversation around it. And I suspect the base understands this distinction, too – they’re smarter than the establishment media assumes. It’s not that they have some false assumption of defunding or repeal – they simply think it’s a fight worth having, no matter the result, and they respond to the desperate courage of those who agree.

Follow Ben Domenech on Twitter.