As Republicans left Washington, the 113th Congress getting happily smaller in the rear-view, they were at war over a meme. Namely: Conservatives were pushing back, hard, against the idea that Texas Senator Ted Cruz staged a pointless fight and enabled the confirmation of some of Barack Obama's least confirmable nominees. The weekend before the recess, Cruz made a procedural objection -- a protest of the November "executive amnesty," which the spending agreement would not defund -- and senators who expected to skip down were forced to stay. That let Reid start the clock on a crew of Obama nominees, and set them up for weekday votes.
Many Republicans trashed Cruz, on the record. Many more Democrats thanked him. Cruz lost 20 Republicans on his procedural vote, which was read as a protest of his protest. And the Obama administration echoed the departing Democratic leadership of the Senate:
This fit so snugly, so Lego-like, into the standing narrative of Cruz that it took until mid-week for conservatives to craft their comebacks. Cruz's office was very satisfied with a take from Byron York, the well-sourced Washington Examiner reporter, who among other things recalled what Harry Reid had said at the start of the prior week. "Maybe we'll have to work the weekend and maybe even work next week," warned Reid. "We have a number of nominations we're going to do."
York took that seriously, because Reid had never shirked a vote just because it required Congress staying in session until the holiday. Any Capitol Hill reporter who arrived when Barack Obama won the presidency had covered Christmas Eve health care votes and a New Year's Eve showdown over the fiscal cliff. "If Cruz had not acted," York asked, "would Reid have said, 'Well, it looks like we would have to work all the way until Dec. 18 to finish these nominations, so let's just put them aside and go home and have a nice time, even though it's our party's last chance to pass them?' Does anyone believe Reid would have done that?"
Democrats scoffed at this. It was one thing to ask them to stay around for a generation-defining health care vote, and another to ask them to approve Vivek Murphy. But Cruz's office insisted that the reporters writing "GOP in disarray" stories had been hoodwinked. The weekend votes had moved up Reid's calendar; they hadn't given him any special powers. At most, they allowed him to release his senators two days early.
"Everyone knows Harry Reid planned to jam forward as many nominees as he could after the omnibus passed," wrote Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier in an email. "He made this clear to members last week, and his spokesperson confirmed so publicly. Unfortunately, there are many on both sides of the aisle who want to distract from the more important debate over the president’s unilateral action to grant amnesty. (Also it is naïve to think that Harry Reid would end his tenure as majority leader, as President Obama’s No. 1 enabler, without pushing through everything he can)."
As ever, conservatives sided with the Cruz protest (as ever, a doomed and grasping protest) over the gripes of most Republicans. On talk radio, the senators who blamed Cruz for the Obama confirmations were obliterated.
"You sound like a bunch of munchkins,” said Mark Levin, one of the most influential talkers on the right. “Backbenchers. Immature! Stupid! Childish comments. I don’t know what this is going to add up to. I don’t know why we’re here. I’ve seen this movie before, and you’re so ineffective. You’re so impotent."
After Jeb Bush announced his presidential explorations, Rush Limbaugh offered that "a lot of this talk about the Jeb candidacy is an attempt to see if they can actually, once and for all, in a primary setting, relegate the Tea Party and members of it who are elected, such as Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, impotent. And I think that's the objective that they have. You look at the way they went after Ted Cruz when he stood up and tried to get a vote on whether or not what Obama was doing is unconstitutional."
Cruz could have predicted those reactions. He'd gotten them before–when he (and Utah Senator Mike Lee, his Sancho Panza) threatened to prevent a debate on post-Newtown gun bills, when he demanded that the 2013 spending packages defund the ACA. Every time, he was covered as Washington's least popular man; every time, he was welcomed home a hero. In speeches, his lonely campaigns became examples of how he challenged the establishment for a victory that only historians would understand. And so it would be with the great nomination jam of 2014.