The fall television season kicks into gear this week, with tons of new stuff, but before you check out any of it, you owe yourself a bigger treat. Go back and watch Chris Wallace’s interview with Ted Cruz on “Fox News Sunday.”
That’s entertainment. For starters there’s Wallace’s demeanor: I would almost swear I caught him holding his nose. There’s his bafflement, the bafflement of an entire nation, about what Cruz hopes to accomplish with his doomed campaign to defund Obamacare. (Hint: He keeps himself in the spotlight. Could a cause be worthier?) There’s Cruz’s sickly look after Wallace recites derisive statements about him from fellow Republicans and he’s reminded that even in his party and even on Fox, the distaste for him is robust. But the best part, the belly laugh, is when Cruz is asked to respond to those digs.
“There are lots of folks in Washington that can choose to throw rocks,” he says, “and I’m not going to reciprocate.” Because he’s nobler than that. Because he takes the high, unrocky road.
Please. Cruz has been casting stones since he first moved into his Senate offices nine months ago. His quarry is bottomless. Let us not soon forget the hearings into Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense, when Cruz wondered aloud whether Hagel had taken honorariums from countries hostile to the United States. This insinuation was groundless and shameless, but it paid off, in a fashion. A newcomer to the Senate, Cruz was the dark star of the proceedings.
A brute was born. He went on to pelt Dianne Feinstein, a Senate elder whom he condescendingly lectured about the Constitution. And there were yet more stones for his Republican colleagues, whom he dismissed as “squishes.” It matters not if you are foe or friend: If Cruz can besmirch you in a manner that bolsters his purer-than-thou, blunter-than-thou, braver-than-thou pose, brace yourself. This week he is blithely putting the lawmakers in his party between a rock and a hard place. If they fail to match the anti-Obamacare passion that he flexed anew in a Senate speech Monday, they’ll land on the far right’s watch list. But if they match it and the government shuts down, there’s a good chance that the Republican Party takes the blame and a hit it can ill afford.
It’s all the same to Cruz. His own notoriety is cemented. He won’t be a hero to many, but to the few who see him that way, he’ll be a veritable monument.
Which seems to match how he regards himself.
“He has come to the reluctant but unavoidable conclusion that he is simply more intelligent, more principled, more right — in both senses of the word — than pretty much everyone else in our nation’s capital,” writes Jason Zengerle in a profile of Cruz in the new issue of GQ. That’s not just a skeptical journalist’s take. That’s many exasperated Republicans’ assessment of Cruz, too.
He has eschewed the slow route to Senate prominence, which would have involved building alliances, for the fast track, which means playing the firebrand, playing to the cheap seats and playing to a news cycle that thrills to conflict.
And he’s lusting to do the same in the 2016 presidential race, especially if Rand Paul’s isolationism means that he can’t seize the role effectively. Cruz has bought into the notion that as a true conservative, he’d mimic Ronald Reagan’s success and avoid Bob Dole’s and Mitt Romney’s failures. This rewrites history, ignoring that the Republican nomination doesn’t go to the firebrand and that two Bushes won three presidencies by lofting words like “kinder,” “gentler” and “compassionate,” adjectives no one would ever affix to Cruz. But then he’s selective with facts, a trait on jaw-dropping display during the Senate speech. He bemoaned the brinkmanship that other lawmakers engage in, spoke as if there’d never been adequate debate over Obamacare and pretended that the law had been implemented fully enough to be definitively appraised.
He also said, “This country will be better off if we work together.” Because he’s all about harmony.
Here’s more history he forgets: Most of the politicians who’ve gone all the way had not just his ambition but also a geniality that’s alien to him and a degree of affection from peers that, by week’s end, he can say a permanent goodbye to. He’s grandstanding and bloviating his way to obsolescence.
To wit: Monday evening, the Senate’s two highest-ranking Republicans, Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, rejected Cruz’s particular strategy to defund Obamacare. And Cruz doesn’t come across so winningly in a recent profile in The Weekly Standard, which, like Fox, is supposed to be friendly turf.
Its author, Andrew Ferguson, describes a car ride in which he mulls hurling himself out the door, no matter how rocky his landing, rather than listen to Cruz for another second. The Senate can relate.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.