Lying to Your Base Is Not Only Wrong, It’s Bad Politics

The move to reject the electoral votes was not the first time that Ted Cruz launched an impossible effort that ended up hurting the GOP.

The movement led by Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz to object to the swing-state electoral votes was always bound to fail, and the two men always knew it. The purpose was not actually to overturn the election results but to send a message to their constituents: “We will fight.”

It’s not the first time Cruz has led such an impossible effort. Back in 2013, he wanted to shut down the government to “defund Obamacare.” The  result, though less bloody, should remind anyone who cares about the future of the Republican party that lying to your political base is not only wrong, it’s also bad politics.  

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, the opposition was intense. Rallies and demonstrations larger than the one we saw this week were routine at the Capitol. Though emotions ran high, the Tea Party protests then were peaceful. Folks dressed in colonial garb, waved the Gadsden flag and never attacked the Capitol Police or pooped on the floor. And the political blowback from Obamacare led to Republicans retaking the majority in the House of Representatives later that year.  

This new House Republican majority repeatedly voted to repeal, partially repeal, defund, or dismantle the health care law. But with the Senate and White House in Democratic hands, those efforts were futile. After President Obama and the Democratic Senate majority were reelected in 2012, a new strategy began to circulate:  What if the House Republicans used their constitutional power of the purse?  If the House passed funding bills for the rest of the government but not Obamacare, the Democrats would be forced to either shut down the government or eliminate the hated law.  

The idea was chiefly championed (notably) not by a House member, but by Cruz, then a Tea Party firebrand. It was superficially appealing, but impossible for both legislative and political reasons. Republicans held the majority only in the House. They had no leverage to force then-Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to put their bill on the floor, nor to force President Obama to repeal his signature legislative achievement. Further, while the law was still broadly unpopular, only a relative handful of Republicans felt repeal was so urgent that they favored shutting down the rest of the government to accomplish it. 

Nevertheless, Cruz persisted. A Harvard-educated lawyer, he was smart enough to realize his plan was impossible but saw its appeal to the Republican base. When confronted with reality, he would simply argue that Republicans needed to “fight harder” and that their legislative leaders simply lacked the balls to do the impossible.  

Again and again, he lied: at rallies, on Fox News, on the Senate floor. But so manyRepublican voters across the country believed his lies that the House was forced to execute his plan. The result was utterly predictable. The House passed a bill to fund the government but end Obamacare. The Senate promptly tabled it, and the government shut down. Cruz insisted that House Republicans “fight harder.”

The media were brutal. In polling, more than 80 percent of the American people opposed the shutdown, and Republicans took most of the blame. After 16 days, the government reopened with no concessions from Washington Democrats.  

Cruz, initially, seemed to benefit politically.  He made himself a national figure and expanded his fundraising base. He lied, and the most fervent Republicans in the country believed him. But the doubt and suspicion he sowed helped sour the base on our existing elected leaders and helped the door for Trump. Irresponsible anti-establishmentarianism turned out to be a powerful drug. Republican primary voters decided they wanted a stronger dose. And now we’re living through the consequences.