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The Political Genius of Ted Cruz

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why does the Tea Party love the man who led them to abject defeat?

Why does the Tea Party love Ted Cruz despite his decisive role in the recent partial government shutdown, which many consider a debacle for the GOP? Why aren’t Tea Partiers blaming Cruz for their drop in the polls, as mainstream Republicans are busily doing for their own decline in popularity? A CNN-ORC International survey from shortly after the shutdown ended shows that 56 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Tea Party, while “only 28 percent” see it in a favorable light — the Tea Party’s lowest favorability rating since its emergence in the wake of the 2008 election of President Obama.

It isn’t that Cruz became unpopular for achieving his own stated objective, namely the rolling back of Obamacare. Had Cruz’s sacred mission succeeded, the Tea Party would have had valid reasons to celebrate Cruz’s victory, however politically costly it may have been to the Tea Party movement itself. But why celebrate abject political defeat in Congress, coupled with a severe hit in the polls? That simply doesn’t seem to make sense.

Let us recall that Americans have a history of revering men who were heroes despite defeat.

Of course, to those who are content to despise the Tea Party, there is really no need to explain this peculiar phenomenon. A political movement composed of nothing but lunatics and raving madmen can hardly be expected to behave according to the high canons of reason and cool reflection. The Tea Party’s adulation of Cruz simply shows how out of touch with reality it is. Yet, operating on the motto that it is always dangerous to despise what you don’t understand, let us try to look for a less invidious explanation of why the Tea Party has hugged Cruz to its bosom instead of trampling him under its feet.

First, let us recall that Americans have a history of revering men who were heroes despite defeat — indeed, because of their very defeat, or more precisely, because of the nobility of soul they displayed in the midst of it. The defenders of the Alamo, for example, would not be the stuff of romantic legend if they had handily whipped the forces of Santa Anna. It was their doomed last stand that turned them into heroes. Similarly, the defeated Robert E. Lee is perhaps more venerated for his noble surrender at Appomattox than for his string of victories in Virginia. In American politics, too, there have been heroes who never won. William Jennings Bryan was beloved by the Midwestern farmers who nominated him for president on the Democratic ticket in 1908, despite the fact that he had already been defeated in two earlier presidential elections. Nor did they cease to revere him for losing yet a third time. In the eyes of the faithful, Bryan remained their “peerless leader.” Likewise, in 1960 there were many liberal Democrats who were prepared to nominate their beloved Adlai Stevenson a third time, despite his earlier defeats in 1952 and 1956. In short, failure often has a nobility that mere worldly success can never know.

Thus it should come as no surprise that during the shutdown crisis, various members of the Tea Party caucus in Congress were found comparing themselves to those grand historical figures who lost, but only after having fought the good fight. Indeed, one Tea Party congressman went so far as to compare their effort at pushing back Obamacare to the 300 Spartans who died defending the narrow pass at Thermopylae from the onslaught of the vast Persian army and whose heroic sacrifice was instrumental in saving from Asiatic despotism not only the free Greek city-states, but Western civilization itself.

Those who despise and deride the Tea Party have taken this remark, and others similar to it, as prima facie evidence that the wackos in the Tea Party movement are even more wacko than they first assumed them to be. Perhaps so — yet if we are going to try to understand the Tea Party, we can’t just stop here. In dealing with the often outrageous and bizarre rhetoric of the Tea Party, we should perhaps take a lesson from the pioneering work of Bernard Bailyn, the distinguished historian of the American Revolution, who himself revolutionized the study of his period by taking seriously the outrageous and bizarre rhetoric of those who supported and cheered the original Tea Party movement back in 1773.

In short, failure often has a nobility that mere worldly success can never know.

Before Bailyn, many historians simply could not take seriously the idea that our revolutionary ancestors actually believed the stuff they wrote about in their inflammatory pamphlets or preached in their often even more inflammatory sermons. What objective modern historian could seriously entertain the oft-cited claim that George III really wanted to enslave the American colonials? One eminent historian of the period, Lawrence Henry Gipson, went so far as to argue that no people had ever been more free or had it so good as the Americans under the British Empire, in which case their incessant talk of impending tyranny could not possibly represent their genuine feelings about the burning political question of the day. Yet Bailyn argued persuasively that we could not hope to understand the real causes of the American Revolution if we were not prepared to accept the idea that such extravagant rhetoric accurately expressed and reflected the way that the American “patriots” of that time really felt about their mother country. Yes, things were not so terrible, but what mattered is that so many American colonials genuinely thought they were.

President Obama is no more a socialist, communist Muslim than George III was a liberty-stomping tyrant, but, just as back then, what matters politically is the fact that so many Americans think he is. It is easy for a pollster to write that “only 28 percent” of Americans have a favorable view of the Tea Party, but this only is still big enough to decide elections and, as we have just witnessed, to rattle the world’s faith in the efficacy and even the future of the American system of representative government.

Three or four years ago, it was still possible to shrug off the Tea Party as a transient and therefore politically insignificant deviation from the norm of American politics. It would go away quickly enough, like a passing summer shower, in which case, why worry about it, much less try to comprehend it? Today, however, in the aftermath of our latest political crisis, such a casual dismissal of the Tea Party is untenable. Indeed, it is a sign of the times that many of those liberals who were most convinced that the Tea Party would swiftly implode upon itself are now worried that the movement’s stubborn refusal to disappear constitutes perhaps the greatest menace facing both the United States and the world. In their eyes, the Tea Party is a clear and present danger, and no single man embodies this danger more than Ted Cruz.

This brings us back to the question of why the Tea Party loves Cruz. Ironically, a large part of his appeal lies in the very fact that so many liberals are truly convinced that Cruz is a dangerous man. This would not be the first time that a politician deemed dangerous by liberals was, for that very reason, ardently embraced by the American Right. Back in 1964, the Democrats under Lyndon B. Johnson tried to scare Americans into thinking that the Republican candidate for the presidency, Barry Goldwater, was just itching to press the nuclear trigger — ready in an instant to vaporize that sweet little girl playing with those pretty daisies, along with the rest of mankind, in the now infamous LBJ commercial aired mere days before the election. True, it worked well enough to defeat Goldwater; yet many of his most zealous supporters championed him precisely because they knew that Goldwater was serious when he said he’d rather be dead than red. They wanted a dangerous man in the White House, since only a dangerous man could hope to stand up to and roll back communist aggression across the globe.

Three or four years ago, it was still possible to shrug off the Tea Party as a transient and therefore politically insignificant deviation from the norm of American politics.

Of course, today’s liberals are not trying to persuade anyone that Cruz wants to blow up the world. According to them, he just wants to blow up the world economy and they believe he came close to doing it during our most recent government crisis, when the United States came within a hair’s breadth of a catastrophic credit default. Invoking the Doomsday imagery of the Cold War, billionaire Warren Buffett even argued that by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, the Cruz-led Tea Party ranks of the Republican Party would be detonating the financial equivalent of a thermonuclear bomb. True, liberals admit, Cruz did not press the red button last time around, but who knows what he and his Tea Party could do the next time. Catastrophe may still be waiting around the corner, while Cruz remains a time bomb that keeps on ticking, a fanatic, in short, who next time may well stop at nothing.

The image of Cruz as a fanatic fits well with the liberal portrait of him as a danger to the republic. Fanatics, by definition, invariably threaten the status quo. They want to turn the world upside down, to lead revolutions that overthrow the established order of things, to pursue their ideals at any price to themselves or at any cost to others. At times, it is true, Cruz will employ fiery rhetoric that is tinged with fanaticism, but sometimes inaction speaks louder than words. Cruz’s decision not to filibuster the Senate at the last moment, simply in order to prolong the pointless crisis a few more pointless days, was a prudent political calculation, made with a wary eye on the polls, and certainly not the act of a fanatic, who, when confronted with a similar choice, will always do his alleged “higher duty,” damning the practical consequences as he does it. Had Cruz made a blazing last stand, defiantly undeterred by adverse popular sentiment, he would have been acting the role of the martyr to principle, even if his critics saw him merely as a fanatic with a fad.

But Cruz didn’t take this route. He caved, totally and completely. This would seem to clear him of the charge of being a fanatic, but it unfortunately raises suspicions that he was acting only as a cynical opportunist, as many of his bitterest critics have charged, many mainstream Republicans among them.

It is this charge that should concern Cruz the most, since it naturally leads to an even graver charge, namely that Cruz is simply using the Tea Party to advance his own selfish political agenda. After all, those who make this charge against him can point to the fact that here is a man with degrees from both Princeton and Harvard. Can anyone really believe (so this argument goes) that a man of his presumed intelligence could find a congenial home among the Tea Party yokels?

This would not be the first time that a politician deemed dangerous by liberals was, for that very reason, ardently embraced by the American right.

Unfortunately, this self-evidently elitist style of argument comes naturally to liberals, many of whom are inclined to assume that anyone of any intelligence must, by definition, agree with their own political views. Hence whenever they find a man of high intellect embracing other views, they can only attribute this to bad faith or the base desire to manipulate the ignorant masses for their own mean and narrow political objectives.

Let us assume, however, that these liberals are right and that Cruz is simply using the Tea Party as a vehicle for his own political advancement — an advancement ultimately aiming at the White House. If this is the case, then it is obvious that at some point, perhaps after he clinches the Republican nomination, Cruz will have to move the Tea Party toward the center — how far will depend on a host of circumstances, such as the fate of Obamacare. A more moderate Tea Party would be in a position to attract voters from the center, which would certainly be in the Tea Party’s interest. So even if Cruz is a cynical political operator, as his detractors suggest, this is actually good news for the Tea Party. It desperately needs a healthy dose of realism and perhaps even a dash of sheer political cunning.

Furthermore, those who accuse Cruz of having merely indulged in political theater, such as the “stunt” of his all-night talk-a-thon, overlook the two ways that his antics have paid off, both for him and for the Tea Party.

First, Ted Cruz has in fact become something of a household name. In American politics, it is hard to get people to vote for you if they don’t know your name, and at this point Cruz’s name is certainly known, though this is perhaps less the result of Cruz’s faux filibuster than of the mountain of ridicule that his liberal detractors heaped upon him when his monologue was finally, eventually, and at long last over. True, Cruz’s name hardly evokes reverence when spoken of in liberal households, but then, as Oscar Wilde liked to say, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, and Cruz is definitely being talked about.

Cruz’s decision not to filibuster the Senate at the last moment was a prudent political calculation.

Second, not only is Cruz being talked about, he is being talked about as the Tea Party candidate in 2016. This is not only good news for Cruz, but for the Tea Party as well. After all, who can forget the last Republican presidential primary, when the Tea Party willfully exposed itself to ridicule by fervently embracing one presidential hopeful after another, engaging in an orgy of serial infatuations reminiscent of the romantic turmoil through which many teenage girls go before choosing the heart-throb of their dreams. One week the Tea Party acclaimed Michele Bachman, while the next Herman Cain was their man. Rick Perry had his day in the sun, as did Rick Santorum. If Cruz can establish himself as the one and only Tea Party candidate prior to the Republican primaries, this would be of no less benefit to the Tea Party itself than to Cruz as a presidential candidate. A Tea Party solidly behind a single candidate would avoid the appearance of flightiness and frivolity that plagued it the last time round, while giving it a much-needed image boost in terms of its political maturity. Here again, what’s good for Ted Cruz the selfishly motivated politician is also good for the Tea Party. Both win.

Yet none of the factors so far mentioned can completely explain why the Tea Party loves Cruz despite the fact that he utterly failed to do what he set out to do, namely, to roll back Obamacare, that bête noire of American conservatives, which brings us to what is perhaps the most decisive factor in Ted Cruz’s favor: liberals hate his guts. They cannot stand him. They mock him. They revile him. Though a mere freshman senator, the governmental crisis has catapulted Cruz into the position of being the man that liberals most love to hate — certainly an enviable position for any politician aspiring to win the hearts and minds of Tea Party loyalists. In fact, Cruz’s position as the target of liberal wrath may well be his trump card within the ranks of the Tea Party. The more the liberals hate him, the more it proves that they fear him. The more they fear him, the more it proves that he is the man who can really save America from their godless tyranny.

In short, if the name of the game is to get liberals to hate you more than they hate your closest political rivals, say Paul Ryan or Rand Paul, then Cruz’s seemingly pointless grandstanding turns out to be a stroke of the highest political genius. Yet what a sad and troubling game this is — though a game that is increasingly becoming the hallmark of the polarization of contemporary American politics, on both sides of the political aisles — a game in which the strongest thing that a candidate has going for him is the fact that he drives the other side nuts. Judged by this perverse standard, Cruz should be a shoo-in.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “Sympathy for the Devil,” “North Korea’s Bluffing Blowhard,” and “Why Not Soak the Rich?” Steve Conover contributes “The Tea Party and the Debt Ceiling vs. Economic Growth.” Jonah Goldberg pens “Ted Cruz, the GOP’s Obama,” while Ramesh Ponnuru says “Liberal Anger Only Makes Ted Cruz Stronger.” John Makin claims “Default Nonsense Recalls Sequester Nonsense.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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