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Gail Collins: Tea party on Cruz control drives to nowhere

Our question for today is: Why don't the Republicans just throw in the towel? Really, this is not going well for anybody.

Lots of reasons. There's Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the Gen. Patton of the government shutdown. And people like the Republican in the House who said he and his colleagues "have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is." Also, Ted Cruz.

"So many Democrats have invoked my name as the root of all evil in the world," Cruz complained on the floor of the Senate Friday. This is true. Senate Republicans merely regard him as the root of most of the evil in the world.

But here's my long-term theory. Over the past few years, Republicans have terrified their most fervent followers about Obamacare in order to disguise the fact that they no longer knew what to say about their old bete noir, entitlements. Now they can't turn the temperature down.

Let's review. Not so very long ago, worrying about entitlements was central to Republican identity. Then, they began to notice that the folks at their rallies looked like the audience for "Matlock" reruns. The base was aging, and didn't want to change Social Security or Medicare. The base didn't even want to be reminded that Social Security and Medicare were federal programs.

During the last Republican primary debates, Gov. Rick Perry called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme." Mitt Romney jumped all over him, then raced off to tell a conservative talk show host that if the Republicans nominated someone with Perry's view on Social Security "we would be obliterated as a party."

This year, when President Barack Obama proposed a budget that actually did reduce the rate at which Social Security benefits would rise in the future, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee denounced it as "a shocking attack on seniors."

People like Paul Ryan still fiddled with Medicare, but only in wonkese that didn't trickle down to the public. There were vague references to the need to "protect" programs for the elderly. But the party had lost its old rallying cry. Enter health care reform.

Just this week, Rick Perry called Obamacare "a criminal act." He appears to be gearing up for another presidential run, and you are not going to hear any Ponzi talk this time around. However, he's so set against the new health care law that he's refusing to let 1.5 million really poor Texans qualify for federally financed coverage. When Rick Perry has a principle, no sacrifice is too great.

All over the nation, Tea Party politicians have been telling their most fervid constituents that Obamacare will bring the federal government into the nation's health system, thus wrecking the wonderful coverage they now enjoy with Medicare. Which comes into their homes through the chimney, where it is dropped by free-enterprise storks.

Rep. John Culberson of Texas called Obamacare "a violation of our most sacred right as Americans to be left alone." This was during an interview with Salon, in which Culberson waxed wroth about the whole idea of any government intervention into health care.

The interviewer, Josh Eidelson, asked, "What does that mean for Medicare, then?"

"What does that mean for Medicare? What does that have to do with anything?" Culberson demanded.

So there you are. It's not easy leading a political movement that believes the federal government is at the core of all our problems while depending heavily on the votes of citizens who get both their retirement money and health care from the federal government.

"Obamacare is the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed in Congress. It is the most existential threat to our economy ... since the Great Depression," said Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana. Think about that for a minute. "Most dangerous piece of legislation ever" really does suggest that it's worse than, say, the Fugitive Slave Act. On the other hand, how many members of the House of Representatives do you hear throw around the word "existential?" So there's that.

If you were a fervent Tea Party follower, listening to this kind of talk for the last few years, you'd feel pretty confident that this showdown in Washington could only end one way, right?

"Congressmen, this is about shutting down Obamacare," Erick Erickson wrote in the influential blog RedState. "Democrats keep talking about our refusal to compromise. They don't realize our compromise is defunding Obamacare. ... Our endgame is to leave the whole thing shut down until the president defunds Obamacare. And if he does not defund Obamacare, we leave the whole thing shut down."

They've created a monster. And now the rest of the country is turning into peasants with torches, storming their castle.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.



By GAIL COLLINS