Sen. Ted Cruz is betting that voters are confused enough about how the Senate works that they can be fooled into thinking he can still stop the law.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz arrives for the weekly Senate Republican Policy Committee luncheon on Sept. 24, 2013.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The rolling, tumbling sack of failure that is the “defund Obamacare” campaign is moving too quickly for its planners to keep their mitts on it. On Tuesday, at 2:07 p.m., the Club for Growth issued a “key vote alert” to the U.S. Senate, warning senators not to allow a debate on the House-passed continuing resolution. The reason? Letting the resolution on the floor would mean Democrats got to amend it and add back the Obamacare money—doing so only required 51 votes.

“To keep the House defund language secure, and to continue using the leverage of the continuing resolution, opponents of ObamaCare should vote ‘NO’ on the cloture vote to end debate,” wrote the Club. “In the event that an agreement is made that requires 60 votes to strip defund language from the resolution, we will withdraw this key vote alert.”

Inside the Senate, most Republicans had no idea what the hell Club for Growth was talking about. Sen. Harry Reid had already smacked down Sen. Ted Cruz when Cruz asked for amendments to meet a 60-vote threshold.

“A vote for cloture is a vote for cloture,” said a puzzled-looking South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

“As far as I can see, the vote on Wednesday is pretty much a set vote, and it’s going to pass,” said Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson. “Foxholes have been dug, and I’m in mine.”

To a Washingtonian, or to someone who knows anything about how Congress works, these were logical responses. Cruz was asking the Senate to prevent a debate on a resolution that defunded Obamacare. “I think we’d all be hard-pressed to explain why we’re opposed to a bill we’re in favor of,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose novice (but wealthy) primary opponent has asked him to filibuster the continuing resolution. “I have no trouble explaining voting for things that I’m for.”

Ah, but to Americans—specifically, the right-thinking heartland folk that Cruz refers to when he uses that word—this is so much political doubletalk. Most Americans have no idea how the Senate works, and they never will. In 2011, the last time the Annenberg Public Policy Center released its always-depressing survey of Americans’ civic knowledge, only 51 percent knew that Congress needed two-thirds majority votes to override presidential vetoes. Only 38 percent realized there were three branches of government. We can extrapolate that less than 38 percent know the different between cloture on the motion to proceed to debate (that’s what was being discussed Tuesday) and cloture on the motion to proceed to a final vote (that’s this weekend).

What’s happening in the Senate now is the simple, Cruz version of reality crashing up against the Senate lifers’ more fact-based version of reality. All of the usual scolds spent Tuesday pointing out that Cruz’s plan made no sense. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which had coined the term “wacko birds” when Sen. Rand Paul (and Cruz) briefly filibustered the CIA director’s nomination, painstakingly explained why Cruz was asking Republicans to bear the onus of a government shutdown.

“The president of the United States says he would veto anything that came to his desk,” said Sen. John McCain, who popularized—mostly to Cruz’s benefit—the wacko birds line. “Nothing is viable until we have 67 votes. To think otherwise is defiance of the facts.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who also planned to vote for cloture, went even further and suggested he’d vote for a “clean” continuing resolution at the end of the week.

“There’s a belief that getting the majority in 2014 is possible,” he said, “and we don’t want to go down roads that make it harder. If you’re a senator from a purple state, if you’re Sen. Kelly Ayotte or Sen. Susan Collins, this is not a good dynamic for you.”

In Cruz’s world, these senators merely lack imagination. If the party fights inside its own tent, then the media will cover the fight. If it unifies behind one argument—even if the argument makes no sense—then the media covers the argument. When the weekly Senate lunches ended, Cruz left saying almost nothing to reporters. When he returned to the floor, carrying notes and facing a mostly empty room, he pledged to speak “until I am no longer able to stand.” It took less than an hour for one Internet artist to turn this quote into a meme.

Cruz’s speech was meant to be misunderstood. Some Internet explainers called it a “filibuster,” which it wasn’t, as Cruz was merely using some of the 30 hours of debate time scheduled before Wednesday’s cloture vote. “Senator Cruz pre-negotiated the terms of his #fakefilibuster with Senator Reid yesterday,” tweeted Adam Jentleson, a Reid spokesman. “Not exactly a Mr. Smith moment.”

The idea that Cruz could slow down debate in a way that aided Republicans was bogus, too. If he did filibuster, now or later, it would either trap the continuing resolution in the Senate or send it to the House with hardly any time for House Speaker John Boehner’s Republicans to tweak and pass it before the Sept. 30 deadline.

“If the House doesn’t get what we send over there by Monday, they’re in a pretty tough spot,” said McConnell. “I’d hate to put them in a tough spot.”

Yes, but what if you pretend that the tough spot was created by the other party? This is Cruz’s mission, and it’s not exactly outré. In the first hour of his floor speech, Cruz repeatedly redefined acts of Congress to make them sound like abuses of statist power. For example: If the continuing resolution gets amended by mere majorities of elected senators, it will have happened on “a rigged playing field.” Back in 2009 and 2010, Republicans were quite adept at defining any legislative maneuver to pass the Affordable Care Act as chicanery. All Cruz wanted Republicans to do was update the blame-shifting rhetoric.

And the party couldn’t see what a winner this was. In hour two, after he’d compared those who didn’t oppose Obamacare to Tories who wouldn’t fight the British or cowards who appeased Hitler, Cruz warned his viewers that the Republicans who voted for cloture, then against the amendment to fund Obamacare, were secretly aiding the Obamacare enslavement.

“Every Republican will get to tell his or her constituents that they voted no,” he said. “And yet miraculously it will pass.”

Having successfully predicted the future, Cruz kept talking.