Ted Cruz, The Barn Burner

In 2013, the audacious upstart shut down the government on a hopeless quest to stop the President's signature policy. Love him or hate him, he is a vision of the future

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Marco Grob for TIME
Marco Grob for TIME

Since the shutdown, his story has taken yet another twist. At the moment when Cruz was thought to be in the greatest peril, the unlikely figure of President Obama further bolstered his confidence in eventual success. The insurance exchanges that are key to Obama’s health care reforms were launched—with great ­fanfare—via lead balloon. Two months of fiasco and snafu thoroughly scuffed up the Obama­care brand and shifted the spotlight away from Cruz’s brinkmanship. He now says that his seeming defeat was actually a victory. “We did not ultimately succeed in defunding Obama­care,” he allowed. “But the fight succeeded in elevating attention to the problems.”

The Shutdown Gambit

Voters and historians will write the final verdict on Cruz’s rogue government shutdown. The fact that he was able to pull it off over the objections of Republican leaders is enough to make him stand out in a dizzying year of factional politics. Cruz is this year’s harbinger of an emerging reality of power politics, one that favors audacious upstarts and punishes pragmatism. Love him or hate him, Cruz is a vision of the future. In this new order, seniority and collegiality count for far less than moxie and a passionate Twitter following. This little-­known lawyer, in his first campaign for elective office, knocked off one of the most powerful and experienced pols in Texas to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, and within a matter of months, he had backed the Speaker of the House into a corner.

Cruz, the former solicitor general of Texas (an appointed position), picked up a Tea Party torch in the 2012 race to fill the seat of retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. The formidable lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, had money and endorsements on his side, but Cruz had a cadre of intense supporters who knew how to leverage new forms of communication. He won going away. When Cruz arrived in Washington, he found the GOP dazed amid the wreckage of Mitt Romney’s loss. The old guard counseled moderation, but Cruz and his renegade soul mate, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, suggested cranking the ideological amplifier to 11.

Their idea—which received little support from Republican leaders—was to press House Republicans to block payments related to health care reform. “Repeal it” was a moribund message, given Obama’s re-election.­ “Defund it” could fill the void.

Everyone knew the President would never sign a spending resolution that gutted his pet reforms. And Washington veterans recalled the last time Republicans pushed a Democratic President into a government shutdown. It was 1995, and it cost them badly.

Cruz and Lee took it to the grassroots, pushing their plan on television, in conservative blogs, on the radio, in speeches—and soon they were counting some 2 million supporters registered at DontFundIt.com. “What the American people did was breathtaking,” Cruz marveled. “They burned up the phone lines” to Congress. The Cruz-backed resolution passed the House and stalled in the Senate, just as everyone had predicted. The government closed. The possibility of a default on the federal debt loomed. And after Cruz had his Sam-I-Am moment and the country realized he had no exit strategy, the whole thing fizzled away.

Until someone finds an amplifier that goes up to 12, anyway.

Coming at the end of a rookie year in which Cruz also played a role in blocking new gun-control measures and challenging the Administration on the lethal use of drones, the shutdown episode left many Republicans with mixed emotions. “I think Ted’s a very talented, principled conservative and heartily support his efforts, but it was a terribly stupid thing to force the shutdown,” says Michael Carvin, a leading conservative lawyer in Washington, whose former firm gave Cruz one of his first jobs.

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