Politics & Policy

Ted Cruz Should Try Speaking to People Instead of at Them

Cruz announces his presidential run. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

Until early 2013, I had never heard Ted Cruz speak. I knew who he was, of course, and I was aware of what he purported to stand for. I knew, too, that he had done yeoman’s work on the seminal Second Amendment case D.C. v. Heller, and for that I was grateful. But, for all the hype that he was generating in the tight-knit circles of the Right, I had picked up his words only in magazines, television transcripts, and the occasional amicus brief.

On January 26, 2013, at just around lunchtime, that changed. In the ballroom of Washington D.C.’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, I watched Cruz make his pitch. Republicans, Cruz argued, should “unabashedly” be the “party of growth.” Moreover, he added, they should commit to a bold agenda that, inter alia, included the root and branch repeal of Obamacare; a flat rejection of new gun-control measures; a healthy skepticism toward any immigration bill that was sponsored by Chuck Schumer; a steadfast opposition to tax increases; the insistence that the legislature was as important as the executive branch; and the presumption that the “47” percent of voters who do not pay income taxes are not a liability to be dismissed but are future conservative voters. With these positions I agreed — and wholeheartedly.

And yet, I hated every single moment of the address. Why? Well, because for all his obvious talent Cruz’s rhetorical style frankly makes my hair curl a little. Striking a pose that lands somewhere between the oleaginousness of a Joel Osteen and the self-assuredness of a midwestern vacuum-cleaner salesman, Cruz delivers his speeches as might a mass-market motivational speaker in an Atlantic City Convention Center. The country, he tells his audiences rather obsequiously, will be saved by “people like you” — people, that is, who are willing to text the word “Constitution” to the number 33733, and to contribute generously to his political action committee. America, meanwhile, is held to be in grave trouble, and it needs to be rescued, NOW. There is potential everywhere, Cruz notes; if only we could tap into it — if only we would believe.

Previewing his speech this morning, NBC’s Kasie Hunt proposed that Cruz’s announcement was likely “to sound & look like a megachurch sermon.” And so, predictably, it did. Aware that he was speaking to a larger audience than usual, Cruz attempted to broaden his appeal. Gone were the hit-you-over-the-head insistences that he is the most conservative person in the world; in came the personal biography and an intimate discussion of faith. Out went the inside-baseball of intramural right-wing disputes; in their place came adumbrations of a national campaign to come. Tonally, too, Cruz softened himself a touch, the better to appeal to the casual viewers watching CNN at home. And yet, bubbling below the surface — and occasionally rising above it — there were all the usual attributes of the typical Cruz sermon: the quasi-religious fervor; the Lennonite appeals to “imagine” a better future; the Manichean intensity that can sometimes cross from the pulpit to the podium; and, from time to time, that slight awkwardness that comes with the presumption that, deep down, every line deserves to be an applause line.

#related#If I am not alone in my reaction, this tendency will damage Cruz more than it will help him, for as The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson observed trenchantly in 2013, he is pretty much incapable of turning it off. Indeed, by most accounts, Cruz speaks in exactly the same way when he is addressing CPAC; when he is meeting with small, friendly, informed groups; and, by Ferguson’s testimony, when he is “at close quarters, only a few feet away, in the back seat of a car.” Britain’s Queen Victoria, The Atlantic records, once complained that William Gladstone “addresses me as if I were a public meeting.” Watching Cruz this morning, one understands how she must have felt. Sure, the man is probably sincere. Certainly, he is one smart cookie. But to my skeptical ears, there is always a touch of condescension in the pitch — a small whiff of superciliousness that gives one the unlovely impression that Ted Cruz believes his listeners to be a little bit dim.

In practice, this can be lethal. Late last year, I attended an event at which both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were scheduled to speak. Going in, the audience seemed infinitely more excited about the latter. Rubio, I was told, was finished — a “traitor” and a “turncoat.” Cruz, meanwhile, was the golden boy. At the drinks reception afterwards, however, a good number of minds seemed to have been changed. “Rubio talks to you,” one attendee explained; “Cruz seemed to lecture.” This is an anecdote, I will grant. But it reminded me of the age-old observation that it is one thing to be the smartest man in the room, but that it is quite another to behave as if you know it.

And make no mistake: Ted Cruz is very often the smartest man in the room. We are dealing here, remember, with a man who has been described by his former professor Alan Dershowitz as “off-the-charts brilliant,” and who spends his free time publishing “scholarly essays on constitutional law.” We are dealing here with a man who has enjoyed a stellar career as a litigator; a man who won the “Best Brief Award by the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), for U.S. Supreme Court briefs in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007”; a man who has argued superbly before the Supreme Court on nine separate occasions. We are dealing here with a man who, a few years back, was the youngest solicitor general in the United States; who was “the first Hispanic ever to clerk for the Chief Justice of the United States”; and who managed to get himself into the Senate without ever having held an elected position before. Because they are so fiercely attached to the presumption that there is only one way in which a sensible person can think, progressives tend to have a tough time separating out how much they agree with a given politician and how “educated” or “smart” that politician is likely to be. This, clearly, is a mistake. If you don’t like Ted Cruz, that’s fine. If you think that makes him stupid, you’re a clown.

Still, we do not elect presidents on the basis of their IQ alone; rather, we also take into account a candidate’s policy positions, his likeability, and his relevant experience in government. Over the next few months, Ted Cruz is going to find out whether the remarkable enthusiasm that he has been able to generate within the Republican party’s base can be echoed elsewhere. On the face of it, he looks a fair prospect. Indeed, within a certain voting bloc, Cruz has hitherto done a great deal to cultivate the impression that his name is a synonym for “conservative,” “fighter,” or “winner.” “So you must be supporting Jeb Bush?” Cruz’s fans seem to ask anybody who dares criticize the man. “So you are in favor of Barack Obama’s executive amnesty, then?” “So you don’t want to fight?” Outside of his in-group, however, loaded questions such as these will remain pretty much meaningless. Sure, within the Right’s endless intramural fights, harsh talk about the “establishment” may convince some would-be detractors to stay quiet. But in the real world, in which normal people decide whether they like someone or not and care little about what that means ideologically, it will count for nothing. Thus far, Ted Cruz has proven to be extraordinarily effective at corralling his own people, but far, far less persuasive attempting to convince the Senate to play ball. Is there any particular reason we should expect his campaign to play out differently?

For what it is worth, my prediction is that there is not. Rather, I expect that Cruz will push the Republican field a little to the right, but that he will ultimately fail to catch fire. Moreover, I’d guess that if Cruz does somehow end up as the nominee he will lose convincingly. In presidential politics, early criticism such as that offered here tends to be quickly shouted down. “Let them all make their cases,” the naysayers cry. “Let’s wait and see what they have to say.” Often this is good advice. But in this case it really is not, for the only way in which Ted Cruz will be able to make his pitch is to travel around the country and speak to the people, in the very tone that will ultimately be his undoing.


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