Politics & Policy

What Critics of Cruz’s Debate-Club Rhetoric Don’t Get

(Spencer Platt/Getty)

The New York Times today offers up an interesting little piece on the topic of Senator Ted Cruz’s impressive, if imperfect, career as a college debater. During his time in the game, the Times records, Cruz developed “an arsenal of rhetorical skills and theatrical gestures that made him one of the most polished performers on the college debate circuit.” At the same time, however, the paper contends that Cruz exhibited a “stilted speaking style,” a counter-productive “emotional zeal,” and an over-seriousness that permitted him to be “foiled with humor.” Worst of all, it is suggested, Cruz’s “own attempts at humor sometimes missed the mark”:

In one debate, he proposed a method to detect infidelity, in which God should “give women a hymen that grows back every time she has intercourse with a different guy, because that will be a ‘visible sign’ of the breach of trust,” according to a recollection by David Kennedy published in a Harvard debate team reunion booklet in 2001.

Mr. Kennedy’s debate partner mocked Mr. Cruz’s knowledge of the subject matter by contorting herself to see how the anatomy in question could be “visible,” according to the booklet.

As a rhetorical tactic, this line was not especially smart, and it was not especially funny. Indeed, had I been charged with scoring the debate I would likely have penalized Cruz for having failed to think his argument through. But the sheer delight with which this revelation has been received by Cruz’s critics has been little short of extraordinary. On his Twitter page, Politico’s Glenn Thrush sent out the quotation without explanation, and then watched with glee as his followers began to thrash around in anger and in outrage. At the Daily Kos, Barbara Morrill presented the line under the headline “Ted Cruz and the funny, magical hymen,” and insinuated that Cruz had been serious. Meanwhile, Talking Points Memo reported in earnest that “Ted Cruz Joked About Hymens While On The College Debate Circuit,” thereby transforming what was little more than an anecdote into a full-fledged news story.

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If one understands the nature and purpose of competitive debating, then one understands how silly this is. Really, it makes about as much sense to use debaters’ words against them later on in life as it does to deem an actor a “murderer” because he once played Macbeth. At Oxford I was a semi-regular fixture at the debating society’s despatch boxes, and, in consequence, I was often asked to present positions with which I personally disagreed. During my three years, I offered arguments in favor of unlimited abortion and a 100 percent tax rate, I made the case against property rights, I contended that Britain should not have fought in the Second World War, and I called for the abolition of private schools. I daresay that in the course of making my case I screwed up a few times. I daresay, too, that I tried a few bad jokes of my own. But that’s alright. On stage, debaters are being asked to play a role to the best of their ability, not to run for office on the back of their own platform. To draw from their contributions anything other than that they hoped to participate in an activity they enjoyed would be a considerable mistake.

Politics ain’t beanbag, and such tricks are hardly new. By the end of the primaries, I suppose that far more trivial things will have been thrown at Ted Cruz and his competitors. And yet the manner in which we think about our public discourse really does matter. Alas, we are increasingly trained to look only for scandalous headlines, and to ignore context at all costs. When covering the Supreme Court, the modern American press talks incessantly about what a given decision will do in practical terms, and almost never about the legal questions that the justices are being asked to consider. As a result, the American public increasingly regards the Court as a legislature rather than as a judicial body, and treats the Constitution as if it were a guidebook not a set of binding rules.

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At the lower level, meanwhile, the conflation of counsel and counseled continues apace. Last year, conservatives pounced with glee upon Hillary Clinton after it was revealed that she had vigorously defended a child rapist in court. This, it was contended, showed . . . well, what exactly? That she likes child rapists? Similarly, Mother Jones’s David Corn could barely contain his delight this month when he discovered that, in the course of his work as a corporate lawyer, Ted Cruz had defended two organizations that were eventually “found guilty of wrongdoing.” These cases, Corn submitted, “could become an issue during his presidential bid.”

Such legally illiterate silliness raised its ugly head during last year’s Texas gubernatorial race, too. In the course of the campaign, Greg Abbott was for some reason asked whether, if he had been attorney general during the 1960s, he would have defended the ban on interracial marriage. “The job of an attorney general,” Abbott replied correctly, “is to represent and defend in court the laws of their client, which is the state legislature, unless and until a court strikes it down.” This uncontroversial and refreshingly honest answer was cynically seized upon by his opponent, Wendy Davis, who immediately charged, “Greg Abbott refuses to say if he would defend an interracial marriage ban. Here’s what’s at stake in this election.”

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As with Ted Cruz’s critics today — none of whom seem to understand how debating societies work — one wonders what these cavilers believe that lawyers do? All told, the American system of justice can work only if everybody receives the best representation possible — regardless of how sympathetic a figure they cut, and of what their attorney believes in private. Before he became America’s greatest president, Bill Kemp notes, Abraham Lincoln “one of the most respected — and best paid — corporate lawyers in the state of Illinois,” and he spent his time “defending the interests of railroad companies, especially the mighty Illinois Central.” By David Corn’s logic, this should diminish our conception of Lincoln as a champion of the little guy. Likewise, before he became an ardent advocate for revolution and of independence, John Adams forcefully defended the British soldiers who had fired upon the crowd in what had become known as the “Boston Massacre.” That Adams went on to be elevated to such dizzy heights demonstrated in no small part that the colonists of the era recognized the importance of due process and acknowledged that the principle of liberty and the consequences of liberty are often at odds with one another. Are we really to believe that this was folly?

#related#Perhaps so. Last week, it was confirmed by the New York Times that America’s top law firms will no longer play a role in our ongoing same-sex marriage litigation for fear that doing so will lead them to “lose clients and find themselves at a disadvantage in hiring new lawyers.” What, I wonder, does that say about our culture’s capacity to distinguish between the players and the game? In the last few years, moreover, governments have shirked their responsibilities to the political order. In 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder took the “highly unusual” step of refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act because he did not personally agree with it. Likewise, in 2013, the state of California declined to defend Proposition 8 — an initiative that had been passed by a majority of its voters — because the incumbent administration happened to object to its provisions.

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That we have arrived at this point, then, should perhaps come as no great surprise, for if we are to leap upon politicians for positions that they took during undergraduate debate club; if we are to lambaste lawyers for protecting the best interests of their clients; if we are to refuse to hear lectures and lessons that contradict our preferences; and if we are to regard the legal decisions of our Supreme Court justices as little more than personal views masquerading behind a little Latin, we will soon find that we have dismantled our most cherished institutions and brought to the crumbling point that virtuous wall of separation that stands between the caprice of our individuals and the rules of our institutions. Liberalism, in its classical form, relies heavily upon a general willingness to separate one’s private and one’s public roles. In the long run, the reflexive blurring of the two can augur nothing but ill-winds. At this rate, our future presidents will have to be bred inside of a test tube.


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