House Speaker John Boehner must have had nightmares like this: Sen. Ted Cruz, speaking before banks of cameras and a rapt press corps, planting his boots behind a podium that read Heritage Action for America. Here was the senator who goaded Republicans into forcing the government shutdown; here was the unaccountable 501(c)3 that backed him up. And here they were lecturing, just a few hours before a special House Republican meeting on how to raise the debt limit without further humiliation.
But the Texas senator wasn’t talking about health care. He’d come to talk up the American Energy Renaissance Act, one of 10 real-enough policy proposals that would be explained during the “2014 Conservative Policy Summit: An Agenda to Unite America.” Cruz’s bill, which will not make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate, would give an OK to the Keystone Pipeline and bar any further regulations on fracking. A printed schedule said he would speak for 15 minutes and do a 15-minute Q-and-A.
Thirty-four minutes later, Cruz said “thank you,” ended the speech, and exited stage right. The press corps escaped the auditorium and snaked around to the narrow space between the exit and the elevators. Reporters asked what size and model of wrench Cruz planned to throw into the debt limit negotiations.
“We’ll have to wait and see what the details are,” said Cruz, “but in my view we should not raise the debt ceiling without significant structural reforms that fix the tide and stop the out-of-control spending.”
The senator left the building. Half of the press and nearly half the crowd left with him. The lost body heat sent a chill around the 230-seat auditorium. This was, Heritage Action’s Tim Chapman COO suggested to me, pretty standard for the media—give ’em 10 actual policies to cover and watch them get distracted by a fight. “No offense.”
None taken, but who can blame the press? Last year, they watched Heritage Action send foundation president Jim DeMint on a national speaking tour and demand that any House Republican budget cut the funding for Obamacare. The resultant government shutdown ended when the Republicans funded Obamacare.
To this day Republicans can’t agree on whose fault this was. On The Tonight Show last month, Boehner credited his party with starting the “predictable disaster.” On Monday, after his Conservative Policy Summit speech about health care, Georgia Rep. Tom Price told reporters that “the president wanted to shut the government down, and he did.”
The summit was a chance to move on. A member of Congress would mention his most daring bill; a panel of policy mavens would discuss it. There would be bathroom and networking breaks, but no free lunch. It was down to business.
“I suppose, at times, it’s tempting to just sit back and be snide about the many failures of liberalism and big government,” said DeMint in his opening remarks. “With examples like Detroit and Obamacare, it’s just too easy.” Heritage Action was kicking off 2014 by featuring ideas that could win “broad agreement” from most of America, because “a mandate for conservatives without a plan, without an agenda, without legislation, is no mandate at all.”
This did not mean a less pugnacious version of Republicanism, or that the Heritage teams had been wrong to fight last year. When a questioner prodded DeMint to talk about the farm bill, which had been delayed for half a year by conservative protests and passed over Heritage Action’s opposition, the former senator declared a TKO.
“We helped Americans see that the farm bill is not really a farm bill,” he said. “It’s 80 percent food stamps, and the spending on food stamps had increased dramatically. They cut it back a little bit. If we hadn't forced a debate on it, there wouldn't have been any debate on food stamps. We didn’t win the argument, but I think we made it a little harder next time to pass a farm bill without reforms.”
DeMint passed the microphone to Heritage Action president Michael Needham, whom the media has settled on as the scheming Oz of the activist right. Needham was less cheery than DeMint. “America did not get to move our agriculture policy into the 21st century,” he said. “We’ve kept the same Soviet-style ag policies that this country has had for decades.” Later, outside the auditorium, he explained that this was not necessarily a negative view of things.