For those who enjoy lowbrow political theater, it’s Christmas come early. Steve Stockman, a Texas congressman so far to the right he’s in danger of falling into the Gulf of Mexico, is challenging Sen. John Cornyn in the Republican Primary. Though Tea Party leaders were calling Texas’ senior senator a “traitor” who “surrendered” on Obamacare, the conservative case against Cornyn is thin. Stockman’s challenge demonstrates that nothing less than absolute faith is sufficient to survive in a radicalized Republican Party that no longer resembles the Party of Reagan, much less that of Lincoln.
Cornyn’s worst sins against the conservative orthodoxy were to bail out Wall Street banks and not voting with Sen. Ted Cruz to shutdown the government to kill Obamacare. Less remembered is his 2009 vote to prop up the housing market with $192 billion in stimulus spending, and if you’re into predetermined outcomes you can find more evidence of impurities, but that’s basically it. The bailout and the you-Cruz-you-lose tactic are essentially the whole case for taking on Cornyn in a Republican primary.
Actually, that’s not true, is it? Look at him. He looks like the very model of a modern major pragmatist, someone who prefers compromise to benefit the greater good than someone who would enjoy building the party up by burning the capitol down. The conservative clerics sense his hidden sanity and distrust how phony his protestations strike their discerning ears. Basically, Cornyn looks like he’s faking it.
Take, for example, Cornyn’s reason for supporting a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage: “It does not affect your daily life very much if your neighbor marries a box turtle. But that does not mean it is right.” The logic is unassailable. Your neighbor would be wrong to marry an animal. It would probably bring down the property values, though to be fair, your neighbor could legally consummate that union in Texas where bestiality is legal.
His courageous stand against zoophilia notwithstanding, Cornyn didn’t need to torture logic to convince the High Church of the Flat Earth that he was a true believer. To a real movement conservative, marriage is between a man and a woman, full stop. Simply put, Cornyn doth protest too much. When he strains to show his loyalty, the flop sweat of anxiety soaks his collar.
That’s weak evidence for an excommunication, and there’s precious little evidence in the record of his disloyalty. In 2012 BC (before Cruz), the National Journal ranked Cornyn as the second-most conservative senator for voting with conservatives 93.8 percent of the time. The Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, and the National Right to Life Committee gave him 100% ratings.
In fact, you can’t find any room to Cornyn’s right on abortion. He voted to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program for unborn fetuses but against expanding healthcare coverage for children who were actually born. He voted to ban federal family planning grants to Planned Parenthood and against reducing teen pregnancy by funding birth control and education. He even thinks employers should be allowed to decide whether their employees get their contraceptives covered by insurance.
Therein lies the conundrum that is Cornyn. He speaks like a man smart enough to realize that birth control prevents unplanned pregnancies and thus reduce abortions. Despite all that, his voting record fails to convince the rightwing jihad that Cornyn shares their mission.
That’s why Cornyn was running scared even before Stockman’s announcement. Cornyn’s campaign ran an ad up touting that he’s “conservative — like you, like Texas,” a quality he demonstrates by shaking the hands of three people but never uttering a word other than “I’m John Cornyn, and I approve this message.”
This ad, like his voting record and his rhetorical excesses, did not appease the Tea Party mullahs who are thrilled Stockman is taking him on. For the next three months, Cornyn will trot out his conservative votes and increasingly reactionary opinions to convince the Tea Party that he’s one of them, but it won’t work. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they’ve made up their mind that Cornyn must be purified by the hellfires of a Republican Primary. It will be quite a show.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JasStanford.