Ted Cruz, the 44-year-old Texas Republican who announced for president on Monday, is a politician who presents a set of unappealing alternatives.
In a Senate where professed “good friends” frequently disdain each other, he’s a particular object of scorn, a pariah even in his own party caucus. That’s because he has used his Tea Party popularity to pressure Republicans into budgetary brinkmanship without any plausible prospect for success. Witness the 2013 government shutdown that Cruz precipitated in an attempt to defund Obamacare, a gambit that left the government gasping and may have injured the economy, but otherwise accomplished nothing — just as his colleagues had warned.
So how to view that sort of senator? Cruz’s explanation is that he has stayed true to Texas and not allowed Washington to change him. The charitable perspective, then, is that Cruz is committed to his cause, but simply clueless as a political tactician.
The alternative view is that Cruz cared more about making himself a hero to Obama-loathing Tea Party Republicans than he worried about hurting the country or putting his GOP colleagues in a spot that they could extract themselves from only through an embarrassing retreat. That would speak to an egoism, ambition, and obliviousness enormous even by Washington’s monumental standards.
But let’s hold judgment in abeyance for a moment and consider Cruz in fuller frame.
Although he’s a polished political orator, the Texas senator admits to little or no complexity. He says the debate on climate change should follow science — and then ignores the strong scientific consensus. He calls for a flat tax to foster tax-filing simplicity and relieve burdens on struggling families, with no acknowledgment that such a scheme would either explode the deficit or shift the tax burden dramatically downward. For him, the Affordable Care Act is a simple usurpation of liberty rather than a complex attempt, replete with both winners and losers, to extend affordable health coverage to everyone.
He views the state-led Common Core endeavor to raise education standards as the federal government dictating school curriculum. He considers efforts to ban armor-piercing bullets an attempt to undermine Second Amendment rights. He declares that, when it comes to erosion of liberty, the United States is near the point of no return.
Here, again, an observer appraising Cruz is left with a choice.
Perhaps the conservative Texan is so much the ideologue, perhaps he sees the world in such black and white terms, perhaps he’s so unaware of fiscal, economic, and policy facts, that he truly believes all that. And yet, profiles of Cruz are full of accounts about his brilliance at Princeton University and Harvard Law School; about his range and dexterity as a debater; about the suppleness and originality of his arguments as an appellate lawyer.
And then one reads Cruz elaborating on his political and legal philosophy. “In both law and politics, I think the essential battle is the meta-battle of framing the narrative,” he told The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin last year. “As [Chinese military strategist] Sun Tzu said, Every battle is won before it’s fought. It’s won by choosing the terrain on which it will be fought.”
That doesn’t sound like either a political naif or a man with a simple, dichromatic view of things.
And then one listens to his rhetoric.
There’s something so overwrought about his tropes, so melodramatic about his warnings, so histrionic about his exhortations, that Cruz seems more like a soap-opera actor auditioning for a role in a new cable TV series about Washington than a finely honed intellect contemplating the issues of the day.
Put all the puzzle pieces together, and the picture that takes shape is of artifice and artificiality.
Now, it’s possible that Cruz could emerge as a force in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus contest. After all, Rick Santorum, a man whose political approach is not dissimilar, eked out a razor-thin victory over Mitt Romney there last time around. And Mike Huckabee, another silver-tongued southern orator, won there in 2008.
But Cruz is the kind of candidate who usually falls flat when the campaign moves to New Hampshire. His rhetoric is too humid, his message too simplistic, his thespianism too obvious to wear well in a state that likes things real.