The Shutdown Sweepstakes

Ted Cruz doesn’t just want a pointless showdown over funding the government. It’s a key part of his presidential campaign strategy.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas speaks to supporters at his Religious Liberty Rally on Aug. 21, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The 114th Congress returned from its summer recess Tuesday to work on the most pressing business facing the nation. Now that President Obama has the votes he needs for the Iran deal, Congress—after some scheduled histrionics about the treachery inherent in that diplomatic accord—will give way to the ho-hum issue of funding the federal government for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

Except there will be nothing fun or easy for House and Senate leaders in this process. The Planned Parenthood “sting” videos that trickled out over the summer prompted congressional conservatives to insist that the federal government no longer provide Title X funding to the family-planning organization. The long truce between pro-choice and pro-life factions, wherein federal grant money that goes to groups like Planned Parenthood is sequestered from money the organization uses to provide abortion services, would appear to be threatened.

Of course, it’s not really in danger. We’ve seen funding games of this nature repeatedly since House Republicans returned to power in 2011. They’ve all played out in more or less the same fashion. Conservatives insist on an ideological demand—repealing Obamacare, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, defunding Planned Parenthood—that neither Senate Democrats nor the White House consider negotiable. The stalemate goes to the brink, or sometimes several weeks past the brink. Once it’s clear that conservative holdouts are inflicting damage on the Republican brand with no apparent exit strategy, House Speaker John Boehner smokes approximately 47 packs of cigarettes in a single sitting, takes a long sigh, and agrees to move a “clean” funding bill across the finish line with Democratic votes. Democrats celebrate, movement conservatives question the spinal strength of GOP leaders, the sun sets in the west, and the Republic carries on.

This time there’s a new variable in the mix: A presidential contest is underway, and a handful of senators happen to be participants. That makes Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Senate less of a legislative body than a proving ground for the candidates’ talking points and fundraising appeals.

Sen. Ted Cruz was too busy Tuesday rallying outside a Kentucky detention center to spend a full day at the office in Washington. But when he makes it back, he’ll lead the charge against Planned Parenthood. “I intend to lead the fight in the United States Senate to defund Planned Parenthood, even while investigations continue,” Cruz wrote in an opinion piece late last month. “The time for show votes is over. Funding the federal government does not require funding Planned Parenthood.” Some, like the whole institution that is the Democratic Party, disagree; others, like Republican leaders, might agree but certainly don’t think it’s worth the risk—as in, an inevitable conclusion—of a government shutdown. McConnell has pledged multiple times that there will be no shutdowns under his watch, and one should expect him and Boehner to follow through on that promise.

The House conservatives who insist on defunding Planned Parenthood find in Cruz their muse, their inspiration, and their conspiratorial dining companion. The aptly nicknamed “Speaker Cruz” has been egging them on to continue these high-profile losing fights since the day he stepped into freshman orientation. And when Republican leaders “cave,” Cruz hits the fundraising and speaking circuits to denounce the cowardice of the Washington establishment.

This time, however, Cruz won’t just be channeling that rage to his fundraising emails. He’ll be bringing it to a presidential contest. In doing so he’ll be fanning, and prolonging, the raging sentiment that’s dominated the early sorting stages of the 2016 presidential election.

Cruz is an intelligent person. He’s known all summer that this Planned Parenthood fight he’s chosen to wage will end with the federal government continuing to fund Planned Parenthood. And being at the losing end of yet another battle serves as a win for Cruz in the context of his standing in the Republican nomination field. He can, and will, take to the trail to castigate McConnell and the establishment for locking arms with cackling Democrats to promulgate Evil, to allow the senseless murder and mutilation of human beings to continue, and so forth.

It will work well, to the extent that any Republican candidates who disagree—or even sound like they disagree—risk the ruination of their campaigns. (Except for Donald Trump, who at any given juncture can select option A, B, or C and skyrocket in the polls regardless.)

Cruz will have the opportunity to force this question on the field next week at the second Republican presidential debate. Let’s make a wild guess here: Cruz will mention his crusade against Planned Parenthood. If the moderators are worth their salt, they’ll address the field: Raise your hand if you think it’s worth shutting down the government to defund Planned Parenthood. Any candidate (except Trump) who fails to raise his or her hand in this situation will be in extraordinary trouble in the nomination fight; any candidate who does raise his or her hand will have made themselves vulnerable to a potent general election attack ad.

The hope within the Republican establishment, now that Labor Day’s in the rearview, is that the feverish sentiment that’s propped up the likes of Trump and kept Jeb Bush down will run its course. Likely voters and caucus-goers will start looking for a president instead of a humorous manifestation of blind rage. If this government funding fight plays out the way it typically does, though—and over an organization as despised on the right as Planned Parenthood—then the fire won’t die down anytime soon.  

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.