Where Ted Cruz Is Coming From

The tea party senator and his allies campaigned on the promise to revolutionize Washington — so why is everyone so surprised they’re trying to do it?

Ted Cruz greets attendees as he arrives to speak at the Tea Party Patriots rally in Washington. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

WASHINGTON — And on the third day, Ted Cruz looked upon his creation, and he saw that it was good.

Yes, Congressional negotiations had devolved into a manic game of finger-pointing that centered on cancer-patient gaffes and pitched battles over war memorials; hundreds of thousands of federal workers had been sent home without paychecks; and Republicans were continuing to cling stubbornly to a list of extraordinary demands that Democrats flatly refuse to entertain. With the country careening haplessly toward potential fiscal calamity, the most powerful governing body in the free world had ground to a halt.

But the Tea Party Senator from Texas saw meaning in the madness. One of the primary authors of the chaos consuming Washington, it was Cruz and his audacious campaign to #makeDClisten and dismantle the Affordable Care Act that first set the government on course for a shutdown. Now, even as he endures scolding from his Senate elders and panicked second-guessing from his skittish colleagues, Cruz makes no apology for his government-breaking crusade.

This, after all, is exactly what voters sent him to Washington to do.

“When I ran for office I promised Texas voters that I would do everything possible to stop Obamacare, and that’s a commitment I’m working very hard to honor,” Cruz told BuzzFeed. “My top priority is restoring jobs and economic growth, and Obamacare is causing millions of American to lose their jobs or not be hired, to be forced into part-time work, to pay skyrocketing premiums, and to lose or risk losing their health insurance.”

“In the past few weeks, we have engaged in a national debate about the enormous harms caused by Obamacare — all because millions of Americans have spoken up and held our elected officials accountable,” he said.

Many of those elected officials do not appreciate Cruz’s antics. They call him a spotlight hog, or an “anarchist,” or a “wacko bird.” But amid all the criticism he and his Tea Party cohorts have received from veteran Washingtonians over the past three years, the underlying sentiment has always been a profound distaste for their unwillingness to conform, to act reasonably, to operate within the tried and true bounds of responsible governance.

As the government shutdown wore on this week, some of the most conservative lawmakers in Congress — as well as the army of ideological aides they command on the Hill — told BuzzFeed that their critics still don’t understand their mission. The Tea Party didn’t come to Washington just to turn the dial a few degrees to the right, or make a couple of symbolic spending cuts. They came to revolutionize the way This Town works — starting with Obama’s healthcare law. And if that means taking big, dramatic risks, or upending traditional policy-making procedure, or slaying a herd of sacred cows standing in the way, so be it.

“I think we have changed the conversation, I don’t think we have changed Washington enough,” said Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, who entered the House of Representatives during the 2010 Tea Party wave. “I think the American people understand that we came here to make sure there was less deficits, less spending, and we want a strong nation that has growth. I feel we have changed the way things are done here.”

None of the Republicans interviewed defended the government shutdown, and they all blamed Obama for refusing to negotiate with them. But they were also adamant that they couldn’t simply cave to Democrats and pass a funding bill without any concessions. They described the problems facing the country — and the progressive policies Obama has implemented — in terms of urgency, insisting that the state of affairs is dire enough to necessitate bold, controversial action on their parts.

“We’re $17 trillion in debt,” said Tea Party Rep. Tim Huelskamp. “We’re slowly making progress. We’ve held the line on certain levels of spending — and here is an opportunity to continue to make progress.”

If some on the GOP’s conservative wing seem insufficiently alarmed that they’ve contributed to the first government shutdown in nearly two decades, it’s probably because they always knew radical action might eventually become necessary.

From its genesis in 2009, the Tea Party movement has been fueled by the rhetoric of revolution. True believers attend rallies unironically dressed in colonial garb. Their early organizers preached earnestly from Saul Alinsky’s left-wing activist handbook Rules For Radicals — a book that advises just the sort of procedural disruption they’ve imposed this week. And while Nevada Senate candidate Sharon Angle outraged mainstream political observers when she suggested people may start looking for “Second Amendment remedies” to the country’s problems, one recent survey showed that nearly half of Republicans believe armed insurrection might be necessary “in the next few years.”

Data points like those have long been Democrats’ bread and butter as they work to cast the Tea Party as “extreme.” But they also show just how extreme conservatives consider America’s current peril to be. To believe an armed revolution could realistically be on the horizon is to live with the genuine suspicion that your government could, at any point, be overtaken by tyranny. In that context, some temporary furloughs seem like a small price to pay.

That isn’t to suggest that many of the Republicans on Capitol Hill are stockpiling ammunition in preparation for a popular uprising. But on a somewhat smaller scale, many Tea Party lawmakers view Obamacare as such a catastrophic threat to the country’s healthcare system and long-term economic health that it’s worth the high-stakes legislative brinksmanship to try to slow it down.

At least, that’s what they hear when they return to their districts.

“You hear back home, ‘You guys never stand up to the Democrats, or you won’t fight,’” said South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, who won a special election earlier this year with Tea Party support. “And again, not going into the merits or demerits on the strategy, there’s a belief within the [Republican] conference that people are trying to stand up in a way they haven’t in the past. And a belief from the folks back home that’s finally being done.”

Kate Nocera contributed to this report.

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