AUSTIN -- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has answered plenty of questions since the government shutdown went into effect.
The first in his primetime interview with Fox News Channel host Megyn Kelly Monday night was perhaps the bluntest yet: "What's it like to be the most hated man in America?"
"I think there have been more than a few Democrats who are throwing rocks in my direction," Cruz eventually responded. "And to quote the bard, 'Methinks thou dost protest too much.' They are throwing every insult they can, but the reality is most Americans don't care about politicians bickering. They're looking for people to solve the problems."
Cruz has taken heat from a number of Republicans as well over the strategy first presented by Texas' freshman senator and a handful of tea party allies months ago.
"If we pass a continuing resolution that says we're funding the federal government but not Obamacare, and Obama says, 'Absolutely not, I'll refuse to sign it,' somebody's got to give," Cruz said in a July 30 "Bloggers Briefing" hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation
. "I think if we hold the line and make the case to the American people, that's a fight we can win."
Laying out his reasoning for tying funding for the Affordable Care Act to a must-pass continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government funded, Cruz argued in part that the previous shutdowns under the Clinton administration was instead beneficial to Republicans. Cruz pointed to the results of the results of the 1996 election, in which Republicans maintained their majority in both chambers, gaining two Senate seats and losing three seats in House. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was reelected.
"I think the received wisdom that '95 was a disaster, I think is completely wrong," said Cruz. "I think it was important that Republicans stood for principal and it actually led to some serious solutions to the fiscal and economic challenges facing this country."
"There are some Democrats, some in the media, even some Republicans who would portray a shutdown as a horrible calamity. I think the term shutdown is a misnomer, it's actually a partial, temporary shutdown," Cruz elaborated.
"The world didn't end. Planes didn't fall out of the sky," Cruz added. "Social security checks didn't stop. Military paychecks didn't stop. We didn't default on our national debt. What happened was nonessential government services were temporarily suspended while the CR expired. Now that happens every single week on the weekend."
Acknowledging that many Republicans were worried about being blamed for a government shutdown, Cruz argued the continuing resolution would be the last chance for the GOP to block the health care law before being fully implemented. Cruz outlined the path to victory as one of winning the public argument and mobilizing the grassroots.
"President Obama and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid will scream and yell, 'Why are those mean and nasty Republicans threatening to shut down the federal government over Obamacare?' And at that point we've actually got to stand up and fight," said Cruz.
"We've got go to stand up and make the argument and win the argument that no, that's not true," Cruz continued. "We have voted to fund the federal government. We want to fund the federal government. Why is President Obama threatening to shut down the federal government because he wants to force Obamacare down people's throats because he's not willing to give individual families the same waiver he's given giant corporations?"
Cruz explained the key to motivating reluctant Republican lawmakers would be to organize a grassroots effort to apply pressure, including flooding district offices with telephone calls and making it clear that a vote to pass a continuing resolution without a provision to defund the Affordable Care Act would be tantamount to a vote in favor of funding it.
Turning up the heat, Cruz, along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), launched a website
featuring a "Senate Republican Whip List" tracking GOP senators who had pledged to block any budget measure which includes funding for the health care law. Among those declining to sign on were Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who by August had become the target of attack ads by FreedomWorks, the conservative super PAC which helped propel Cruz to the Senate in 2012.
Cornyn's office explained then that as an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, Texas' senior senator had cosponsored the legislation filed by Cruz to strip the law's funding. In a statement to KVUE, Cornyn's office pointed out that the health care law would continue to receive funding in the event of a government shutdown.
"After reviewing Sen. Lee’s letter, Sen. Cornyn feels the best approach to defund Obamacare is Sen. Cruz’s bill to do so and Sen. Cornyn is an original cosponsor of this bill," Cornyn's office told KVUE. "Sen. Cornyn believes the most substantive approach to take is to fight to defund the entire law, which he has done, as opposed to just the small percentage of discretionary funding that Sen. Lee’s letter pertains to."
Despite uncertain support within the Republican caucus, the movement would soon reach critical mass. With the budget deadline days away, Cruz mounted a 21-hour speech in the Senate chamber heaping criticism on the health care law as well as Republicans skeptical of his strategy, an act of physical and political endurance that immediately cast Cruz as the de facto face of the Tea party's last stand over the Affordable Care Act.
"There are those in the Senate who hold leadership titles, and then there are those in the Senate who actually lead," FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said in a statement after Cruz's speech. As the Republican majority in the House and Democratic majority in the Senate squared off, Cruz was praised by GOP colleagues in the lower chamber for spearheading the effort.
With Democrats refusing to alter the health care law in return for a budget measure and a shutdown now entering its second week with roughly 800,000 federal workers at home without pay, Cruz is sticking to the strategy laid out back in July. Confronted Sunday with poll numbers showing the majority of Americans blame Republicans in Congress for the shutdown, Cruz dismissed CNN's State of the Union host Candy Crowley's suggestion he may be hurting the Republican brand.
"Not remotely. But I also think far too many people are worried about politics. Listen, if we worry about what is impacting the American people, the politics will take care of itself," said Cruz. Discussing the timetable for a resolution with an even more critical debt limit deadline swiftly approaching, Cruz again directed attention back to Democrats.
"I think we still have time," Cruz said. "We need to deal with the fact that a significant percentage of the government is shut down because Harry Reid and President Obama have refused to negotiate. And you're seeing House Republicans over and over again passing reasonable bills to open vital government services and President Obama and the Democrats refusing to negotiate. We have to focus on that first because that is the immediate challenge."
Both Democratic leaders have chastised the latest efforts by Republicans to fund specific parts of the government as "picking and choosing" certain agencies to minimize the visible effects of a shutdown while leaving the rest of the government unfunded. Meanwhile reports have begun to surface of growing frustration within the GOP, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), with where the strategy has led.
In an interview with Alez Seitz-Wald of National Journal, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) called Cruz a "fraud." The New York congressman who has been increasingly vocal in his opposition to Cruz's strategy added further, "No one even cared about Ted Cruz a few months ago. But he has sold a false bill of goods. He’s a false prophet."
Whether the gambit by Cruz and his allies is ultimately successful, his ability to rally like-minded lawmakers while causing headaches for party leadership has made him polarizingly popular. For Texans who followed Cruz during the 2012 election, the senator's refusal to "go along to get along" once elected is hardly a surprise.
"He's governing the same way he said he would if elected," said St. Edward's University Political Science Professor Brian W. Smith, who cautions Cruz's hard stance in the clubby upper chamber could have consequences long after the dust settles on the current battlefront.
"The advantage of that is personally you're getting a lot of attention," said Smith. "The disadvantage is down the road, you're going to have to work with 99 other people who are going to remember this. So in that sense, if he ever does want to start passing some big major policies, he's made a lot of enemies."
At the same time, Smith says Cruz's relentless crusade has inspired praise among Republicans who feel the party hasn't gone far enough to stop the Affordable Care Act from taking root, a sentiment which could easily translate into a strong primary campaign for a politician rumored to harbor aspirations for the presidency in 2016.
Still the current crisis remains unresolved, and a budget deal seems increasingly likely to be tied to an increase in the nation's debt limit needed to avoid a default and a possible international economic disaster. What sort of a hand Cruz may have in crafting a solution remains to be seen, and an appraisal of his skill as a legislator will take some time yet to determine.
"We'll know in a couple of years if he becomes a lasting force in the Senate, or just a guy who had a good speech before a budget shutdown," said Smith.