The Australian Financial Review

By Mary Kissel

The best that can be said of the Republican Party's 16-day, oxymoronic government shutdown is that it's illustrated what founding father and president James Madison described in the Federalist Papers as the "passions" of politics.

Ted Cruz has a passion to be president in 2016, and if the Grand Old Party has to pay in opinion polls today or in the polling booths in next year's Congressional elections, so be it.

The senator from Texas wasn't a household name until he big-footed into the conservative leadership breach that Mitt Romney was supposed to fill.

With the GOP running a single chamber of Congress, House Speaker John Boehner and his able budget chairman, Paul Ryan, had opted for tactical victories they could squeeze out of an intransigent White House and Senate chief Harry Reid.

Chief among them is the roughly $US1.2 trillion in discretionary budget cuts over the next decade which is known as the "sequester."

That 2011 deal was the un-Cruz: a result of calculated and careful GOP politicking. Barack Obama wagered Republican hawks would never accept deep defence-budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. They did. When the White House warned airplanes might fall from the sky and seniors might not see their social security checks, the GOP held firm and Americans yawned. Federal outlays have now fallen for two years in a row — for the first time since the end of the Korean War. October's debt ceiling deadline gave the GOP another chance to extract even more concessions.

Enter Cruz with his 2016 presidential ambitions, and Beltway lobby groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, who promised to defund ObamaCare in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, while Senate Democrats promised never to vote for such a law and Obama promised never to sign it.

An impossible impasse? Yes. But the Cruz coalition whipped up populist sentiment anyway in a country frustrated by falling incomes, persistently high unemployment and the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression.

Cruz and his compadres were never going to be the politicians blamed for a default on America's debt, and so predictably, as the deadline neared, the Republicans caved and ended up in a worse place than where they started. The sequester is now on the bargaining table in a budget conference chaired by Ryan and Senate Democrat Patty Murray, and the question is, what Republicans will concede in the talks. The government will shut down again on January 15 if the two sides can't reach an agreement.

What do Americans think? The latest Pew poll says 73 per cent of Americans have an unfavourable view of Congress. The Wall Street Journal / NBC news poll blames the GOP for the shutdown by a 22-percentage point margin. The Tea Party and Republican Party, at 21 per cent and 24 per cent favourability ratings, are at their lowest ebb in a political generation. Meanwhile, Obama's approval rating increased over the last month by two points to 47 per cent.

This is a political victory, says Heritage's Jim DeMint, who claims "good policy is good politics," and getting rid of ObamaCare is still priority number one.

Cruz says he'll "continue to doing anything I can to stop the train wreck that is ObamaCare." It all recalls Marine Lieutenant Lewis Puller, surrounded by Chinese divisions during the Korean War and beating a retreat: "Those poor bastards, they've got us right where we want them. We can fire in any direction now!"

The tragedy of the Cruz caucus's kamikaze mission is that had the Republicans simply proposed a compromise to raise the debt ceiling that Democrats would find hard to deny – such as a one-year delay of the individual mandate – the public's attention would be focused entirely on today's ObamaCare implosion. After three years of development, the half-trillion-dollar website is spitting out error messages and faulty data, the Secretary of Health and Human Services is hiding from Congress and the entire state of Delaware signed up exactly one person to the program over the first two weeks.

And this yet this is what Organising for Action, the Obama administration's permanent campaign, sent to its supporters Saturday: "When the government shut down, the American people lost. It's on us not to let anything like this happen again.

"Sign this letter to Congress."

ObamaCare may still implode in the long run, but for now, Democrats have an excuse to change the subject. For that, thank the passions of Ted Cruz.

This article originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review.