As the U.S. government shutdown continues in its second week and there remains a looming possibility of a Congressional gridlock over the debt ceiling on October 17, much attention has been directed to the first-term Republican Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz. The Calgary-born Cruz has been dominating the headlines for the past three weeks with his 21-hour faux-filibuster against the Affordable Care Act (popularly deemed “Obamacare”), and his adamant stand against the president’s health care reform as a “job killer.” In so doing, the “Senator from Canada” (Cruz was born to an American mother and a Cuban father in Alberta, Canada. He currently holds both U.S. and Canadian citizenship.) has become the de facto leader of Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representations and the face of the GOP.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner seems unable to break Cruz’s hold on the Tea Party caucus. As a result, defunding Obamacare has become the leitmotiv for Republican support to end the shutdown. Speaker Boehner keeps asking for a conversation with President Obama to break the stalemate, but it seems his most intransigent opponent is within his own ranks. Cruz, however, may be calling the tune on this Republican shutdown position, but he is not without his detractors.
Republican heavyweights such as anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist and Bush operative Karl Rove have openly questioned the Cruz-led strategy to tie a budget vote to replacing the 2012 election result on Obamacare or making it inoperative. Some have openly speculated that a fratricidal war within Republican ranks could cost the GOP dearly at the polls in the 2014 midterm elections. Polls, while spreading the blame to both parties, indicate greater disapproval with the Republicans’ performance on this issue. It is undoubtedly a risky strategy.
Clearly, Cruz has ambitions beyond the shutdown and the debt ceiling fight—possibly even the next presidential cycle in 2016. While many Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with his bravado, his leadership on this issue and his media presence are making Speaker Boehner look weak and vulnerable. This is a unique situation where the Speaker of the House is being held hostage by a first-term Senator of the same party from another arm of the legislature. Meanwhile, the Tea Party is keeping Boehner’s feet to the fire, despite his obvious inclination to find a compromise with Obama.This government crisis is now having ramifications beyond the borders of the U.S. The risk of a recession and a global financial crisis later in the month coming from continuing intransigence among a minority faction of the Republican House majority could result in a further downgrading of U.S. credit ratings (as happened in 2011), largely affecting the trust and confidence in the U.S. financial system. Unlike the 2008 financial crisis, the political dysfunction in Washington will be the catalyst for a global crisis and this could further erode U.S. influence in the global economy. Markets in Europe, Asia, and Latin America are nervously watching.
Ted Cruz’s decision to make a domestic program such as Obamacare the central focus of his first year in politics is changing the political landscape in America. Clearly, Obama refuses to allow his signature legislation—which became the law of the land in 2010, was declared constitutional by U.S. Supreme Court in 2012, and later supported by his reelection last November—become a bargaining chip in resolving the current shutdown and later on the debt ceiling showdown.
Obama is now in his last term, but the Republican Party cannot expect to win the White House in 2016, unless it is able to reach beyond its current constituencies to show a greater sense of responsibility and a more inclusive approach to governance. The so-called missile from Canada may have created its first real casualty.