By Bill Schneider On October 28, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his supporters may wish to commemorate the feast day of Saint Jude. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes. Because if ever there was a hopeless cause, it is killing the Affordable Care Act.
Fighting for hopeless causes is not uncommon in politics. Think of the nearly two centuries it took to abolish slavery and segregation in the United States. Fighting for a hopeless cause can raise public consciousness about an issue and advance the career of the advocate.
But it has to be seen as a noble effort. Cruz's effort is anything but noble.
Defunding Obamacare is hopeless because the numbers aren't there. If a bill were somehow to make it through the House of Representatives and Senate, President Barack Obama has vowed to veto it. It takes a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress to override a presidential veto. Republicans are not even close.
"Tactics and strategies ought to be based on what the real world is," Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said on CBS News's Face the Nation on Sunday "and we don't have the political power to do this."
Cruz admitted as much in July. "Right now, we don't have the votes," Cruz told a group of libertarian students. "We don't have the votes in the House. We don't have the votes in the Senate. I'm going to be perfectly candid. We can't win this fight. No Washington politician can win this fight."
So what was he doing speaking for more than 21 hours on the Senate floor calling on his colleagues to defund the policy? Cruz went on to tell the students in July, "The only way we win this fight is if the American people rise up in overwhelming numbers and demand our elected officials to do the right thing and stand for principle." He's trying to start a bandwagon!
There is no evidence he is succeeding. True, Obamacare is not popular. In last week's New York Times-CBS News poll, Americans said they disapprove of the Affordable Care Act, 51 percent to 39 percent. But by 56 percent to 38 percent, the public said Congress should "uphold the law and make it work as well as possible," rather than "try to stop the law from being put into place by cutting off funding to implement it."
Cruz's tactics are the problem. He and his allies are holding the federal budget hostage. If they don't get their way, they're threatening to shut down the federal government. That angers Cruz's fellow Republicans — who fear they will get the blame for a government shutdown as they did in 1995. Meanwhile, Obamacare will still be law.
Cruz's colleagues see the effort as futile and self-serving, damaging the Republican brand in order to advance Cruz's 2016 presidential prospects with conservatives. Cruz has returned fire, blasting his critics as "defeatists" who belong to the "surrender caucus."
He even compared the Republican senators to those who tried to appease Adolph Hitler in the 1930s. Yikes! Was Cruz comparing supporters of Obamacare to Nazis?
Cruz may have been thinking about another Texas politician who captured attention by fighting for a hopeless cause. That was Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis, who in June delivered an 11-hour filibuster on the floor of the Texas legislature. Davis was trying to stop a bill that placed burdensome restrictions on abortions in Texas.
Her cause was also hopeless — because Republicans hold a solid majority in the Texas State Senate. Davis did succeed in stopping a vote before the special session of the state legislature expired. But then Republican Governor Rick Perry called the legislature back for a second special session, where the anti-abortion bill was promptly passed.
Davis's filibuster made her a hero to Democrats around the country, and they responded by contributing handsomely to her campaign fund. She has indicated that she intends to run for governor of Texas next year and has said she will make an announcement next week. The pink running shoes she wore during her filibuster have become iconic. Hmmm. Cruz made a point of exchanging his usual cowboy boots for black running shoes when he delivered his marathon speech.
While both causes — stopping the Texas abortion restrictions and defunding Obamacare — are hopeless, Davis's filibuster did nothing to make the situation worse. The Texas abortion restrictions would have passed in any case. What she did was raise public consciousness of the restrictions and enhance her national stature as a champion of women's rights.
Cruz's tactics, on the other hand, run the risk of causing serious problems. He and his supporters could force the federal government to shut down or default on its obligations, which might lead to a worldwide financial crisis. Meanwhile, Obamacare will still be law.
Fighting for a hopeless cause is not a bad thing. It can do wonders for your career, and it can raise public awareness. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) did that when he staged an 11-hour filibuster in March to protest drone attacks against suspected terrorists in the United States. Paul helped turn public opinion against secretive U.S. government surveillance activities.
Cruz, however, is doing something different. He's saying, "Either I get my way on defunding Obamacare, or I will do great damage to the country."
That's not fighting for a hopeless cause. That's blackmail.
(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)