‘Establishment Republicans,” writes Jeffrey Toobin, “remain in some level committed to uphold rudimentary operations of government and at least talk about broadening the Party’s appeal. Ardent conservatives, including those in the Tea Party movement, regard the Capitol as a cesspool of corruption, and they see compromise as betrayal.” The lines come from Toobin’s profile of Senator Ted Cruz, featured in the June 30 issue of The New Yorker. You will have no trouble guessing to which group Toobin thinks the senator belongs.
Then again, compared with the last major New Yorker story on Cruz, “Is Senator Ted Cruz Our New McCarthy?,” Toobin’s profile is downright glowing. The CNN legal analyst and New Yorker staff writer interviewed Cruz for the essay, as well as former professors, classmates, and colleagues. “Completely brilliant” — Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz’s description of his former student — is the near-universal sentiment of Cruz intimates, even his ideological opponents. Toobin himself does seem to find Cruz impressive, in a supervillain-on-the-rise sort of way. Cruz is, Toobin summarizes, “the far right’s most formidable advocate.”
At one point Toobin quotes Cruz’s guiding dictum, borrowed from the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu: “I think the essential battle,” says Cruz, “is the meta-battle of framing the narrative.” Toobin clearly agrees. And, like much of the Left, he wants to frame Cruz as the “id of the Republican Party” — an impulsive, uncompromising, far-right absolutist. In fact, “The Absolutist” is the title of the piece.
What is Cruz “absolute” about? “He denies the existence of man-made climate change, opposes comprehensive immigration reform, rejects marriage equality, and, of course, demands the repeal of ‘every blessed word of Obamacare’” — all positions that, according to Toobin, put him increasingly out of step with most Americans. Citing Cruz’s part in last October’s federal shutdown, Toobin makes clear that Cruz is one of those “ardent conservatives” opposed to even “rudimentary operations of government,” a “small group of terrorists” dedicated to inducing anarchy, as one Democrat put it.
This familiar narrative has been not ineffective. Even colleagues in his own cloakroom have partaken (cf. John McCain’s “wacko bird”). But Toobin hopes that Cruz’s “absolutism” is self-evident, an obvious fact about these new Sarah Palin–inspired Republicans. Enlarge the frame, however, and the narrative is different.
Over at Commentary, Peter Wehner identifies a different “absolutist”: not the junior senator from Texas, but the current occupant of the White House. President Obama, says Wehner, is afflicted with an acute case of “cognitive inflexibility”: “Mr. Obama’s mind is too inflexible, his ideology too gripping, and his vanity too overwhelming to rethink his assumptions and approach.” The consequences are obvious: President Obama’s unwillingness to entertain any perspective on foreign policy other than an enlightened cosmopolitanism ensured that he misunderstood Vladimir Putin and misread the so-called Arab Spring, and his unyielding dedication to withdrawing every blessed troop from the Middle East encouraged anti-American forces, such as ISIS, to hunker down and wait. We are now reaping the rewards. When it comes to the arguments of ideological opponents, he does not even grant them a shadow of legitimacy: Skeptics of man-made climate change are like members of “the flat-Earth Society” or those who believe in a cheddar moon; opponents of a ballooning debt are “hostage takers”; supporters of voter-identification provisions are “un-American.” Simply put, his opponents are, as he told a Seattle fundraiser, an “impediment.” The president is, by contrast, “not a particularly ideological person.” He is only “pragmatic.”
Ted Cruz does not use this kind of language — and it would make little difference if he did: The Senate floor regularly steams with hot air. Nor is he interested only in partisan measures: The first bill he authored, to ban an Iranian diplomat who had been involved in the 1979 Tehran hostage-taking from serving as an envoy to the United Nations, passed both the House and the Senate unanimously and was signed into law by President Obama. But even if Ted Cruz were a bomb-throwing, ransom-note-scribbling Bircher speaking in tongues in the Capitol rotunda, there would remain a crucial difference between the firebrand rhetoric of a junior senator in an out-of-power party and the unyielding self-certainty, regardless of facts or circumstances, of a sitting president. The job of one is speechifying; the job of the other is governing.
Ted Cruz may be “doctrinaire,” to use Toobin’s pejorative, but it is President Obama’s refusal to incorporate into his thinking and governing the concerns of his political opponents that has pushed Left and Right farther apart. Moreover, that refusal, seen alongside the usurpation of government resources for partisan purposes (e.g., the IRS scandal), has ensured that many conservatives believe themselves not merely ignored by government, but targeted by it. No longer are conservatives the “principled opposition” to the administration; they are its enemies.
The ascendancy of Ted Cruz must be evaluated against that background. And that requires a much larger frame than Jeffery Toobin would prefer.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.