WASHINGTON -- In one moment, with one statement, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) managed Wednesday to accomplish what House GOP leaders, Republican senators and the Wall Street Journal editorial page had failed to do for months: Persuade rank-and-file House Republicans that shutting down the government in an attempt to defund Obamacare was simply impossible.
On Wednesday, after House leaders said they'd go forward with the defund strategy Cruz had been pitching with ads on Fox News, his response boiled down to 'Thanks, you're on your own.'
"Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so," Cruz said in a statement. "At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people."
On the surface, House Republicans were seething. Members openly accused Cruz and his allies, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), of waving the white flag before the fight had even begun. One House GOP aide even called Cruz a "joke, plain and simple."
But by admitting that he had no ability in the Senate to back up the House effort to defund Obamacare, and saying so on the same day that House Republicans had announced they would support the Cruz-inspired strategy, Cruz has inadvertently done more than any other lawmaker to avert a government shutdown.
"Cruz officially jumped the shark this week," said one GOP operative allied with House leadership, who, like others, requested anonymity to speak critically about fellow Republicans. "He's doing for the House Leaders what they couldn't do for themselves. House rank-and-file members are uniting with Boehner, Cantor over Ted Cruz's idiotic position."
The retreat by Cruz has led to public questioning from House Republicans about his motives and political acumen, not to mention joking speculation that he may be part of a vast and devious liberal conspiracy to undermine conservatives.
"Cruz is the leader of a secret cabal of leftists that are seeking control of the conservative movement," quipped one senior House Republican leadership source. "Their aim is to force the party to take on suicidal missions to destroy the movement from within."
Another senior House GOP aide was grateful that Cruz had made plain what House leaders had been arguing for weeks -- that there was no viable strategy connected to a government shutdown that would defund Obamacare. "We can only defund Obamacare if it passes the Senate," the aide said. "If there is no plan to get the defunding provision passed in the Senate, or even a plan to fight to get it passed in the Senate, then what we’re talking about isn’t a plan to defund Obamacare -- it’s just a plan to shut down the government and hope for the best. That’s not a great plan."
That Cruz was left without any strategy at all, after demanding for months that Republicans follow his lead, feeds into the notion that the tea party is rooted more in political nihilism than any particular ethos, an argument Walter Sobchak would appreciate.
When asked by HuffPost Thursday to respond to his Republican critics in the House, Cruz said, "I salute the House Republicans for their fight on this." He added, "The House of Representatives, where Republicans have the majority -- the House has to drive this process."
He also thanked House leadership for their work on Wednesday, in an appearance on Fox News' "Hannity." With Lee by his side, Cruz pledged to continue the fight, likened himself to Winston Churchill, and noticeably put the onus to defund Obamacare on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) -- all with a straight face.
"As Churchill said, we will fight on the beaches, we will fight on the streets, we will fight at every step to stop the biggest job killer in America," Cruz said, adding later that "Harry Reid needs to listen to the American people just like John Boehner did."
For liberals, Cruz and the tea party have been the gift that keeps on giving. In both 2011 and 2012, tea party opposition staved off a "grand bargain" between Boehner and Obama that would have brought draconian cuts to Medicare and Social Security. In 2010 and again in 2012, the tea party pushed extreme Republicans through Senate primaries, where they subsequently lost winnable races in Delaware, Nevada, Colorado, Indiana and Missouri.
And they also brought Cruz to the Senate.
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.