Congress, it is said, is divided into "work horses" and "show horses." The former try to make laws, while the latter worry more about whether they can get on TV. Plenty of members try to be both, but there are a surprising number that don't even bother legislating. And these days, being a show horse offers a much clearer path to one day running for president. It's still technically possible to spend a few decades crafting a legislative record and working your way up the leadership ladder, then eventually get your party's nomination, like Bob Dole did. But it's a hell of a lot easier to inject yourself into a few controversies, make some notable speeches, and take a trip or two to Iowa. Do that, and like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz (or Barack Obama), you can run for president in your first term.
Cruz, however, is doing something completely new. He may not bother to introduce any bills, but he is creating a new kind of legislative innovation. Perhaps for the first time in American history—I can't think of any precedent, and knowledgeable people I've asked can't either—we have a senator who has taken it upon himself to lead revolts in the House in order to undermine his own party's leadership there.
Last year, Cruz held private meetings with Tea Party members in the House, urging them to keep the government shut down in the vain hope that they could destroy Obamacare as the price of ending the crisis. And this week, he was at it again:
The beginning of the collapse of House Speaker John A. Boehner's border bill came Wednesday evening, when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz gathered more than a dozen House Republicans at his office in the Dirksen building on Capitol Hill.
It was there, as Boehner (R-Ohio) held his own meetings on the other side of Constitution Avenue, that Cruz heard that the speaker didn't have enough votes—and realized that if his House allies held firm, he could rupture the fragile coalition supporting the measure…
He agreed that Boehner was distracted and said they should stick to their principles. The freshman senator also reminded them to be skeptical of promises from House leaders, particularly of "show votes"—legislative action designed to placate conservatives that carry little, if any, weight.
That quiet assurance was enough to persuade the conservatives to effectively topple Boehner's plan, at least on Thursday, by balking when he said he would hold a largely symbolic standalone vote on Obama's program.
We shouldn't overstate the impact of Cruz's involvement; it's likely that Boehner's immigration plan would have failed even if this meeting hadn't taken place. But once again, Cruz has used his influence with House conservatives to help undermine Boehner and engineer a debacle for Republicans.
You might wonder at the strategic wisdom of that, but what's bad for the GOP can be good for Ted Cruz. If we assume that his primary goal is mounting a presidential campaign, Republican unity isn't something to be desired. You know what Republican unity gets you? Candidates like Bob Dole and Mitt Romney: establishment figures who get the nomination because it's their turn and they seem like the best chance the GOP has of winning. Cruz is going to be the candidate of the far right, and the only way he could possibly prevail in a nomination fight is if it turns out to be a complete mess, with multiple factions engaged in bitter recriminations that fail to resolve themselves. If there's a compromise candidate, it isn't going to be Ted Cruz; if there's a bloodbath, he stands at least a chance of being the last one standing.
I think it's highly unlikely that Cruz could get the GOP nomination. But if you think about his actions in terms of stoking the GOP division and dismay that give him a shot, they make a lot more sense.