Before Ted Cruz And Mike Lee There Was Sarah Palin And Christine O’Donnell

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Monday morning’s Washington Examiner editorial is the column I would have penned about what happened concerning Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee this weekend — had I written about it first.

In case you missed the piece (or, for that matter, in case you have a life and missed the entire ugly incident on Friday night) here’s an excerpt that explains what happened:

“Cruz and Lee derailed a bipartisan agreement on procedure Friday night. Their actions removed the only major obstacle to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., confirming several minor Obama nominations that Republicans strongly opposed. Because Republicans lacked the votes to block the nominations in question, their best and only leverage was to insist on the use of all debate time, running out the clock on the lame duck Congress. It seemed likely that Democratic senators would not tolerate losing their Christmas just so that Obama could get his surgeon general confirmed.

“Cruz’s and Lee’s parliamentary freelancing gave Reid all he needed to advance the schedule by two full days and guarantee the confirmation of these nominations. In exchange for making Reid’s job easy on ramming the nominations through, all Cruz and Lee got was a symbolic floor vote against Obama’s executive action on immigration. It drew the support of only 22 senators. One reason was that if it had succeeded, their motion would not have prevented Obama’s executive action but, rather, would have killed the underlying omnibus bill and caused a government shutdown.”

I made similar points on Twitter — and was promptly rebuked by the legions who are just happy somebody is trying to do something to stop Obama! The impulse to applaud a politician who embraces the cult of action is understandable, but should we make a hero of the guy who wants to win the football game so much he accidentally scores a touchdown for the opposing team?

Of course, this assumes the purest of motives. My guess is that the desire to score political points and garner press attention — to make a big stink about a symbolic vote that wouldn’t have mattered — made them susceptible to this mistake, which opened the door for Harry Reid to waltz thru.

And yet, this won’t hurt them with their fans. In fact, it will only make them more popular. I’m interested in the way politicians can frame obvious losses as victories, and the way their fans now live in a sort of alternative universe — a state of willing denial — where the very facts are in dispute. This works, partly because of an infrastructure. While many of Cruz and Lee’s boosters are grassroots conservatives who are fed up with Washington, others are professional conservatives who exploit this “game” for profit (or simply because it’s part of their branding shtick).

Among some, this cult of personality seems to lead to delusions of grandeur, to distorting presumably otherwise sane people’s perceptions of events. How many times have I been told things like… “You’ll see, something HUGE is going to drop on Monday, and Thad Cochran’s going to go to jail and Chris McDaniel is going to be awarded a seat in the Senate!”? (Yes, I’m employing hyperbole — but only just a little. )

This is familiar territory. I’m old enough to remember a time when conservatives who voiced even the mildest criticism of Christine O’Donnell’s playing of the victim card and identity politics were dubbed the “ruling class.” A similar phenomenon occurred with Sarah Palin; any criticism from the right was deemed unchivalrous apostasy — an example of aiding and abetting the liberal media who literally wanted to destroy her. Therefore, even constructive criticism was branded traitorous. Conservative commentators who didn’t want their Twitter timelines filled up with invective — who didn’t want to be branded a RINO — quickly got the message that it was much smarter to remain quiet. (This is not to suggest that Cruz and Lee are exactly like Palin and O’Donnell; they’re not. But it is to suggest that they are employing the same playbook, and that their fans are responding in almost identically credulous fashion.)

In any event, the larger problem is that if conservatives are afraid to say “the emperor has no clothes,” then we will continue rewarding the wrong things, which means conservatives will continue losing. Is it wise to look the other way? It doesn’t do much good to pretend that the touchdown counts for your team when it was scored in the wrong end zone, but what if even after watching the game film, we still decline to tell our star player he cost us the game?

This raises a question: Who cares more about something, the guy who ignores its faults or the guy who wants to address them? An animal lover will get his dog to the vet the minute he turns away from his kibble. The car lover won’t ignore that pinging sound because he loves his Ford Mustang too much to say something about it. The coach or sports commentator who who ignores the botched play makes it more likely the offending player will do it again. Yet, in the conservative movement, blind loyalty seems to be demanded. It’s ironically a form of protectionism. Of escapism.

For now, the choice is to either speak out and be beaten down, or to remain silent. Of course, as was the case with the O’Donnell criticism, intellectually honest commentary tends to look much better in hindsight. But at the time, daring to question even a given strategy or tactics employed by the conservative darling of the moment is fraught with danger.

Kudos to the Examiner for a profile in courage. Kids, don’t try this at home.