Wednesday, June 29 , 2016, 10:18 am | Fair 66º

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Mark Shields: Cruz Control — How the Senator Is Playing to Win by Losing

Here in Washington, yesterday's instant analysis too often becomes today's conventional wisdom. That appears to be the case in the emerging media-political consensus, which holds that freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — by gratuitously alienating his Republican congressional colleagues while leading a doomed crusade to defund Obamacare — has written his own national political obituary.

It is true that Cruz's interpersonal skills are, to put it mildly, undeveloped. Barely weeks after becoming a senator — at the confirmation hearings of Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator and decorated combat veteran of Vietnam, to become defense secretary — Cruz, conceding he had "no evidence," smeared the nominee by wondering whether checks "deposited in (Hagel's) bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia (or) came directly from North Korea."

Why were so few of his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill willing to follow his lead in the kamikaze mission of closing the U.S. government to defund Obamacare? "What I can tell you," Cruz has observed, "is there are a lot of Republicans in Washington who are scared." Cruz may well be writing his own book, "Dale Carnegie Was Wrong."

But the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will not be decided, let's be clear, by elected Republicans on Capitol Hill. No, the people who pick the next GOP nominee are in fact the engaged and energized Republicans who go to the caucuses and who vote in the presidential primaries. And among the most energized Republicans, Cruz is championing their cause.

Of course, the most engaged Republicans and Republican-leaning voters are the four in 10 party members who agree with the Tea Party. According to the respected Pew Research Center, 92 percent of Tea Party Republicans "prefer a smaller government with fewer services," whereas among non-Tea Party Republicans, just two in three favor such a government. On energy, a strong majority of non-Tea Party Republicans favor developing "alternative sources"; by a 73-16 percent landslide margin, Tea Party Republicans instead say "expanding production of traditional sources" should be given priority.

Which is more important, protecting gun rights or controlling gun ownership? Among Tea Party members, 93 percent say protecting gun ownership, whereas just 68 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans would agree. No potential 2016 candidate more embodies the priorities and the passions of activist Tea Party members than Cruz, who this month won more than three times as many votes as any other Republican in a straw poll of 2,000 conservative activists and faith leaders at the Values Voter Summit.

It's a good bet, given the widespread public contempt for political Washington, the 2016 campaign will be a lot like that of 1976, when voters — disgusted by the criminality that led to the resignations of Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon, as well as with Vietnam — chose the anti-Washington, anti-business-as-usual candidate, Jimmy Carter. For that reason, many expect that the 2016 nominee will be a governor or another non-Washington figure. But will there be anyone in the field who is more disliked by the Washington establishment or more believably anti-Washington than Cruz?

Recall that in major public polls during the year leading up to the 2012 GOP nomination, the front-runner, at various times, was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, businessman Herman Cain and, yes, a hotelier and unreconstructed "birther," Donald Trump.

Cruz, a man who is obviously a complete stranger to self-doubt, may self-destruct long before the Iowa caucuses. But his unpopularity with his own party leadership and colleagues could be, in an anti-establishment year, his strong suit.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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