A spat has broken out over whether the media demonstrated liberal bias in their coverage of Senator Ted Cruz’s marathon anti-Obamacare speech. Conservatives are contrasting the heckling and slurs leveled against Cruz with the overwhelmingly positive reaction won by his fellow Texan Wendy Davis for her ultimately unsuccessful filibuster of a bill in the Texas state senate restricting abortions performed after 20 weeks.
Liberals who reject the bias charge make two main points. First, they say, the most negative commentary against Cruz came from opinion writers, not news reporters. Second, they add, Davis’s 13-hour physically grueling feat constituted a genuine filibuster while Cruz’s semi-orchestrated effort wasn’t a bona fide attempt to derail Obamacare.
Let’s deal with both arguments in turn. It’s certainly true that opinion writers were the most dismissive of Cruz’s efforts. Josh Gad, writing in USA Today, said he watched TV in disbelief as he saw “a grown man from Texas, who seemingly had passed through sixth grade, standing at a podium in the U.S. Senate, at risk of urinating on himself or worse while reading bedtime stories” in order to protest Obamacare. Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, called Cruz, with whom he went to college at Princeton, an “arrogant jerk.”
But the tone of reporters and news anchors was also clearly dismissive or negative. Most networks focused on Bill Clinton’s latest endorsement of Obamacare. When they covered the Cruz speech at all, they showed few clips of Cruz actually explaining his position, although he did so at length throughout the course of 21 hours. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos called Cruz’s speech “bizarre,” and NBC’s Natalie Morales referred to it as a “long-winded protest.”
By contrast, Stephanopoulos’s ABC show This Week featured Wendy Davis in its “spotlight” segment and interviewed her in the dinner theater where she once worked as a waitress. There was little criticism of the unruly mob of Davis supporters in the gallery who shouted down Texas state legislators. Indeed, most news reports made no mention at all of this crowd, although it’s likely that their disruptive behavior was just as responsible as Davis was for the fact that the bill didn’t make it to the floor for a vote in Austin before the legislative session’s midnight deadline.
The second argument liberals make to defend themselves against the charge of liberal bias in the Cruz–Davis coverage is that Cruz’s 21 hours meant nothing at all. Charles Pierce of Esquire magazine, after comparing Cruz to the late demagogue Joe McCarthy, claimed:
A filibuster has a point, a definable political objective. What Cruz is doing has nothing that concrete. And it is not the case that these are identical because, “symbolically,” they are the political equivalent of caber-tossing. One was a filibuster. The other is a long speech.
The truth is that both speeches were made in large part for the purpose of political theater and had no real chance of changing the legislative outcome. Davis has admitted to fellow legislators that she knew Republican supporters of the abortion restrictions would soon come back and pass the bill in a special session. Cruz admitted in public the high likelihood that he would not achieve his goal of defunding Obamacare.
But both speeches have undoubtedly had political consequences. Davis became an instant liberal celebrity and has signaled she will run for governor of Texas next year, a race she would begin as an underdog but might have some chance of winning.
Cruz has for now become the “it” guy for the conservative base as a result of his speech, probably boosting his presidential ambitions. But he has also helped reshape the entire approach Republicans are taking to Obamacare. House speaker John Boehner is suggesting that Republicans will seek a one-year delay in implementing Obamacare as part of any deal to continue funding the government. The Cruz speech may be partly responsible for rattling Senate majority leader Harry Reid so much that he admitted that Obamacare’s tax on medical devices was “stupid,” even while insisting he’d accept no changes in the law. Cruz’s speech may also have spurred Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to announce that he wants a one-year delay of Obamacare’s mandate that individuals buy health insurance. And Cruz’s criticisms of Obamacare were partially validated Thursday when the White House announced it was postponing enrollment in most of the small-business exchanges, originally scheduled to open on October 1.
The editorial board of the New York Times has dismissed Ted Cruz as “the public face of the aimless and self-destructive Tea Party strategy to stop health-care reform.” In reality, his speech may have reignited intense opposition to a law many conservatives had fatalistically accepted as unstoppable. It’s too soon to know if Cruz’s speech will have a lasting impact, but the over-the-top criticism by some liberals has revealed just how worried they are about both Cruz’s potential and Obamacare’s future. Cruz “is the most talented and fearless Republican politician I’ve seen in the last 30 years,” Democratic strategist James Carville told ABC News in May. “He is going to be something to watch.”
After all, when Ronald Reagan burst into the national consciousness with his televised “Time for Choosing” speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964, liberals were united in their scornful dismissal of him. As I recall, the Gipper bested his critics with the last laugh — many times over.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.