Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is got attention last week for saying two stunningly ignorant things: that the Senate needs 100 members just like the late Sen. Jesse Helms and that a government shutdown at the end of this month would be no big deal.
His comment about North Carolina's Helms is fairly inconsequential. If he thinks the Senate would be a better institution if it were composed of 100 unrepentant, bigoted segregationists, that is his business. But his willingness to let the federal government stop functioning for any amount of time is everyone's business, and it is consequential because Mr. Cruz is one of the leaders of the tea party faction of congressional Republicans that is merrily sprinting toward that cliff.
The deep thinkers at the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council have convinced the most fervent conservatives in Congress and in the right wing media that there is just one last chance to stop Obamacare before new health system's broader benefits kick in at the start of the new year. After that, they argue, Americans will become hopelessly addicted to government-guided health care and will never give it up. The only way to put on the brakes, they argue, is to defund Obamacare in the next federal budget.
That budget is supposed to be passed by the end of this month. If it is not passed, or if a continuing resolution is not approved to keep things going until a budget deal is reached, the government will have to suspend operations on October 1. Mr. Cruz and his compatriots believe their willingness to let that happen gives them leverage that can finally force the president to dump his health care scheme.
The last time militant Republicans went over the brink and allowed the government to be shuttered was 1995. Then, they were trying to impose their plan to balance the federal budget on Bill Clinton who was at the weakest point of his presidency. Conventional wisdom and most of the evidence says the Republicans' boldness did nothing but anger voters and that the shutdown of '95 was the beginning of Mr. Clinton's political rebound.
Senator Cruz does not accept that conventional wisdom, calling it "cocktail chatter." He believes Republicans will gain by sticking to their guns.
If only they had ammunition. Unlike 1995, when Mr. Clinton actually wanted to cut a balanced budget deal but was not willing to capitulate to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on every point, there is no chance President Barack Obama or the Democrats who just happen to have a majority in the Senate will agree to defunding the Affordable Care Act. Sane Republicans know this is true, and they also know they will get the blame if an extended government shutdown rattles the financial markets and harms the economy.
Sanity, however, is seen as weakness by the Republican militants. Mr. Cruz shows nothing but disdain for what he calls "scared Republicans." In a radio interview, he said, "We need 41 Republicans in the Senate or 218 Republicans in the House to stand together, to join me."
That is, of course, not enough votes to force their will on Mr. Obama, but it is enough to create the kind of chaos our struggling economy can ill afford.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.