Cruz and Cotton clash: Should the GOP go big on another coronavirus stimulus?

These tweets from Varad Mehta about Cruz wanting to limit the next stimulus made me laugh because they’re so painfully true — almost. Ranting impotently in the Senate minority isn’t Cruz’s lifelong ambition, but it’s a fate he’ll happily accept if his actual lifelong ambition ends up unfulfilled. Which it will.

Cruz isn’t alone in preferring to operate in the minority. Look no further than Trump himself, who’d be having the time of his life right now on Twitter and cable news armchair-quarterbacking President Hillary about the COVID disaster every day if he had fallen a few votes short in 2016. Even now during interviews the president will occasionally lapse into rhetoric about, say, the unrest in cities like Portland that might lead one to believe Joe Biden was president instead of Trump himself. The entire GOP project since he was sworn in, from the White House to the Senate to Paul Ryan’s House majority, has been a case of the dog that caught the car and didn’t know what to do next. In 2017 they were handed total control of government and did nothing meaningful legislatively except get a tax cut passed. Even the one big project they got close on, repealing ObamaCare, proves the point: We’re 10 years removed from passage of that law, which they’ve been trying to get rid of for a decade, and they still don’t have a clear alternative to it.

But why should they? They can always go on Rush’s show to yell about it instead. Modern Republican political stars don’t become stars because they’re good at governing, they become stars because they’re good at cultivating and expressing grievance, and powerlessness is essential to feeling properly aggrieved. Ranting about the country going to hell when you’re in charge is absurd. Better to have Democrats in charge so that you can blame each new problem on them, feel unobliged to offer plausible solutions that might require unhappy compromises, and celebrate your own ideological virtue in sporadic “Hannity” appearances.

It’s not a political party in any meaningful sense. It’s not designed to govern or implement a visionary agenda. It’s a grievance shop that seeks mainly to try to undo anything the left wants to do. Trump is actually superior to most Republican politicians in that sense: Whether you like his trade wars and the border wall or hate them, they were concrete things that he wanted to do as president which he thought would improve the country. (Of course, most of the rest of his agenda is just undoing stuff that Obama did.) He’s 90 percent ahead of every congressional Republican in that sense.

All of this is to set the stage for the Cruz/Cotton showdown over whether the GOP should keep the money tap on or start pretending again for political reasons that they care about fiscal responsibility:

Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) warned GOP colleagues and White House emissaries during a private lunch on Tuesday that conservative voters could revolt in November if Republicans spend too much on the next phase of coronavirus relief efforts. After voting for $3 trillion in new spending and revenue reductions to combat the contagion and its economic consequences, some lawmakers are saying they cannot support a new package if its price tag exceeds $1 trillion. Cruz asked Senate Republicans, “What in the hell are we doing?”

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) suggested at the lunch that the GOP needs to be willing to keep racking up debt to maintain power. He argued that the full conference needs to focus on protecting their most vulnerable members. Cotton postulated that Democrats would spend more money if they win the Senate majority in November and, therefore, it is cheaper in the long run to allow the size of the spending package to grow with more goodies to benefit incumbents who are up for reelection.

Mehta’s pissed off because Cruz’s position here is obviously — obviously — idiotic. Conservative voters won’t revolt. Rather the opposite: The surest way for the GOP to seal its electoral fate would be to cut funds for laid-off Americans as the pandemic continues to rage across the south and California, putting lives and businesses at risk. It’d be gifting Democrats with the message, “We’re the only party that cares about you and your children.” Fiscal responsibility at a moment like this would at least be intellectually defensible (although still politically suicidal) if Cruz and the rest of the congressional GOP had spent the past three years riding herd on Trump and McConnell, howling for spending cuts in a push to reduce the country’s already catastrophic debt. But they didn’t. They were blessed with three years of roaring economic growth, a perfect moment at which to restore fiscal sanity, and they still managed to run trillion-dollar deficits because the thought of asking Trump to do something politically unpopular made them pee themselves in fear.

So now here’s Cruz recovering his brand as Mr. Fiscal Conservative at the worst possible moment. A double agent for Biden couldn’t do better.

So why’s he doing it? Cruz is many things but “idiotic” isn’t one of them. He knows how voters would react if he got his wish. Peter Spiliakos recognizes what he’s up to:

Cruz understands as well as anyone (better than most, frankly) that the GOP has no real ideology or governing ambitions. He also knows how to read a poll, and he knows what the polls say about who’s likely to win this fall. So he’s making a bet: Biden will be president next year and right-wing voters will be left grasping for an ideology to fill the vacuum left by Trumpism. Cruz’s perfectly sensible bet is that they’ll land back on fiscal conservatism, not because they sincerely care about it but because the Democrats’ agenda will involve big big big spending and the Republican agenda will, as usual, simply revert to “we’re against whatever Democrats’ are for.” The Mr. Fiscal Conservative shtick is just an attempt to anticipate the dominant strain of the backlash that will greet Biden once he’s an office. Will righties still care much about Josh Hawley’s crusade against Big Tech when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are pushing new tax hikes on the Biden White House? Will they rally to Tom Cotton’s hyper-hawkishness when AOC’s trying to get the Green New Deal off the ground? Of course not. They’ll be pretend tea partiers again. Cruz is polishing his cred on that point now in hopes of wooing them in 2024. “Remember when the RINOs wanted to keep spending when tens of millions of people were laid off due to a deadly virus and I was like ‘nah’?”

But we can’t blame everything on Cruz. The craziest element by far of the horribly timed “return to our roots” fiscal conservative push among Washington Republicans is Trump’s own White House wanting to cut money for testing and contact tracing, which is as close to forcing a “pro-coronavirus” position on vulnerable Senate Republicans as one can imagine. I’ll leave you with this quote from Senator — and M.D. — Bill Cassidy.:

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