Ted Cruz pushes Senate to listen to the people

Reuters

US Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) (C) signs autographs as he arrives to speak at the Tea Party Patriots 'Exempt America from Obamacare' rally on the west lawn of the US Capitol in Washington, September 10, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Cruz's filibuster-like speech wasn't primarily about Obamacare. It was about making Congress listen to the people.

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  • Cruz is not a policy wonk or a health care expert.

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  • Cruz explained that Obamacare is unpopular but that Congress doesn’t care.

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  • For Cruz, Obamacare is primarily a symbol of a Congress unaccountable to the voters.

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Ted Cruz's filibuster-like speech in the Senate on Tuesday wasn't primarily about Obamacare. It was about making Congress more responsive to the people.

Cruz is not a policy wonk or a health care expert. He probably can't explain how the exchanges face huge logistical hurdles, how the regulations lead to provider consolidation, or how the whole package will raise health care costs and limit access.

Instead, Cruz explained that Obamacare is unpopular – that Americans don’t want the law to go into effect – but that Congress doesn’t care. A Washington Post/ABC poll last week found 52 percent opposed the law, while only 42 percent supported it. Obamacare has never had majority support in the Post/ABC poll going back to 2009.

The liberal response: Once people find out what’s in Obamacare, they’ll like it. This is plausible. Many people will get coverage for the first time in years. Many people will see their premiums fall.

But for Cruz, Obamacare is primarily a symbol of a Congress unaccountable to the voters. His fight is about bringing Congress in line with the people's will. “Fundamentally, that's what this week is about. We need to make D.C. listen,” Cruz said in the first hour of his speech. Cruz staffers used the Twitter hashtag #MakeDClisten.

And this “Make D.C. Listen” effort is exactly how Cruz has infuriated his fellow Republicans – by going over their heads and straight to the voters.

In Washington, it's called the “inside-outside game”: Beltway players reach out to the grassroots to apply pressure to elected officials. When Cruz and friends do it, I call it the Tea Party Whip Operation.

The Tea Party Whip Operation works in a few different ways. For instance, Rand Paul whipped his party in a dovish direction with his filibuster on drones back in March. Twitter provided instant feedback during Paul's speech. This showed overwhelming support for Paul's position. Senators responded, and most Republicans demanded limits on Obama's drone-strike powers.

Often the Tea Party Whip Operation involves outside groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks. And these groups' involvement is what really upsets other Republicans.

Back during the gun control debate, Cruz incurred the ire of Sen. Susan Collins by appearing in an advertisement that a gun-rights group ran in Maine to pressure Collins.

Also, Cruz publicly put out a letter – timed to just before congressional recess – calling on senators to prevent a gun control bill from even coming to the Senate floor. Grassroots conservatives read the letter and pressured their senators to sign on.

In recent weeks, Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah worked with the Senate Conservatives Fund on ads about defunding Obamacare. Cruz and Lee in the videos implored conservative voters to tell their senators to defund Obamacare.

Now, the Senate Conservatives Fund is running attack ads in the states of reluctant Republican senators. “Republicans in Congress can stop Obamacare by refusing to fund it. But Senator Lamar Alexander refuses to join the fight,” a typical SCF radio ad says. “It’s time for Lamar Alexander to start listening to us and not his friends in Washington.”

You can see why other Republican senators wouldn't like this. You can see why they don't like Cruz and Lee playing ball with these outside groups. And you could see how this dynamic could hurt the Republican Party.

But here's the Tea Party interpretation of this anger: “Senators don't like to be held accountable,” Matt Hoskins, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund wrote me in an email this week. “They don't like it when their voters find out that they aren't doing everything possible to stop Obamacare.”

Mike Needham, president of Heritage Action, compares the recent changes in political dynamics to the changes in music after the Internet and Napster. In the mid-1990s, the big record labels benefited by being a bottleneck through which listeners had to get music. The Internet has democratized the distribution of music, and the oligopoly of the large labels has crumbled.

Senators and congressmen used to have a near-monopoly on explaining Congress to their constituents. They could say they were trying to repeal Obamacare, while really they were casting symbolic votes and walking away from any real fights.

Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, like Napster, use technology to smash that bottleneck. Now lawmakers can’t control what their constituents hear anymore.

Cruz's speeches and parliamentary moves may not make a dent in Obamacare, but Cruz may force senators to listen harder to their constituents.

Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at [email protected] His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.

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