Cruz's pandering

I’m not a Ted Cruz fan. My opinion didn’t change after last night’s debate. If anything, it crystallized.

First, I’ll admit that a small part of my antipathy to [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] is based on superficial issues. Most notably, I find his vocal tone annoying, too nasal and high and reminiscent of LBJ’s honey-tongued drawl. If Hillary Clinton’s laugh and Carly Fiorina’s voice can be subject to criticism, Ted Cruz’s timbre is equally subject to the same negative analysis. And, in a sense, it’s not shallow to talk about how a candidate presents himself. That’s part of campaign tactics, after all–to figure out how to present the most appealing persona to voters. (Let me point out as an aside that when I did occasional commentary for Vermont Public Radio in the days we lived in that state, my producer would regularly suggest that I try to deepen my vocal register because higher-pitched voices could be annoying. Sen. Cruz would do well to listen to similar advice.)

On more substantive issues, though, I have a problem with Sen. Cruz’s pandering. Yes, pandering. Sen. Cruz panders to the base to enhance his profile. Start with the 2013 government shutdown. When you know Republicans are most likely to be blamed for any government shutdown, you better have a pretty solid goal for using such a tactic. Sen. Cruz seemed to want to use the strategy to defund the Affordable Care Act. But was this a serious goal? Was there a health care reform alternative, around which he’d gotten his colleagues to rally? Had he, in fact, rallied the GOP troops to support his tactic at all? Did he have a Plan B, a secondary goal? If it was to get people to dislike the ACA, well, that was already happening.

After asking those questions, ask yourself this one: What did the government shutdown actually achieve?  Sen. Cruz believes that it drew attention to Obamacare’s failure and was seen as the reason for the shutdown, despite his party being blamed for it. Did the shutdown push momentum to Republicans in subsequent midterm elections? I think that’s connecting some pretty far-apart dots, producing a cause-and-effect relationship that doesn’t necessarily exist. People don’t like the ACA. Polls have reflected that. Sen. Cruz didn’t cause that reaction. We didn’t need a government shutdown to hammer that point. The one sure effect of the shutdown was this one: it raised Sen. Cruz’s profile.  How convenient.

Contrast Sen. Cruz’s bombast with Sen. Marco Rubio’s quiet and effective campaign to get rid of this harmful law. Sen. Rubio has taken aim at defunding risk corridors, denying insurance companies bailouts, a smart strategy that stays true to fiscal conservative principles. And he’s done it without pandering, without insulting his GOP colleagues, without…preening.

Before leaving this particular point, let me concede that I share the frustration of GOP activists who see in Sen. Cruz an ability to shake things up in order to get the Old Guard moving. I agree that we need to try new things to move the conservative agenda forward. But how about trying smart new things? The shutdown strategy should be used smartly, when there are achievable goals. It shouldn’t be used to launch one senator on to the national stage.

Then, there is Sen. Cruz’s pandering to Donald Trump fans. He’s been conspicuously absent in condemning some of The Donald’s more outrageous statements, including the latest Trump pronouncement about banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. Surely the very vocal Sen. Cruz could have managed a word or two about that ridiculous and counterproductive Trumpism. But Sen. Cruz’s response was weak tea. And in this, it’s clear to me he’s pandering again, winking toward the xenophobes in Trump’s following, hoping, perhaps, they’ll join his throng when Trump’s campaign fizzles.

Sen. Cruz has also called the majority leader, [mc_name name=’Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’M000355′ ], a liar on the Senate floor. Now, you can agree or disagree with Sen. McConnell’s strategies. But to publicly denounce him as a liar, after previously telling an interviewer you don’t approve of going after fellow Republicans when asked to condemn Donald Trump’s sharp words against [mc_name name=’Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’M000303′ ]? That’s pandering to your Tea Party base, with the goal of increasing your own profile once again.

And it’s on this point, where Sen. Cruz’s pandering was most evident last night at the debate. I agree with fellow diarist Leon H. Wolf — Sen. Cruz is happy to battle [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ], but sits on his hands when it comes to disagreeing in any meaningful way with Donald Trump. He chooses his battles not so much on principle as on what benefits him personally.

Sen. Cruz is moving up in the polls. If that helps push Donald Trump out of the winning position, great. But once The Donald is sidelined, I hope other candidates overtake the Texas Senator.

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated novelist.