The Perversely Fascinating Ted Cruz (It's Not About Cancun)

by Neil H. Buchanan

For someone possessing whatever is the opposite of charisma (repellency, maybe?), Ted Cruz has made it very far in life.  Cruz, moreover, has succeeded not in one of the areas in which being a jerk can be a positive, which is what allows Martin Shkrelli or Elon Musk or Roseanne Barr to enjoy at least temporary success.  No, he actually has somehow convinced millions of people to vote for him on multiple occasions.

That is not, of course, as uncommon as I made it seem just now.  There are plenty of politicians of national stature who are simply awful personally, from former Democratic congressman Barney Frank and still-Governor-for-now of New York Andrew Cuomo to Senator Rand Paul or the late Senator Strom Thurmond.  For as long as there have been parties, and especially in current Republican politics, winning general elections is not the real game.  All Cruz had to do was work behind the scenes to grab his party's nomination and, in a state like Texas, he was all but guaranteed to win and to keep winning.  And when it comes to the presidential stage, no one comes close to Donald Trump for treating people -- with special focus on women, people of color, and especially women of color -- like crap.  Of course, he lost the popular vote.  By a lot.  Twice.

Yet somehow, Cruz manages to rise to the top of the a--hole rankings, again and again.  Earlier this week, for example, he started to speak at a makeshift press conference, and he was not wearing a mask at the indoor event.  A reporter asked: "Do you mind putting a mask on for us?"  Cruz: "Yeah, when I'm talking to the TV camera, I'm not going to wear a mask. All of us have been immunized."  Note that "us" is the four (masked) senators standing behind Cruz, not the reporters.  Reporter: "It'd make us feel better."  Cruz: "You're welcome to step away, if you'd like."
So Cruz tells a working stiff to choose between doing his job or being potentially exposed to a deadly virus.  Cruz feels safe, so everyone else is on their own.  Way to own the libs!

My special fascination with Cruz, however, extends beyond his notorious ability to get people to hate him.  (The erratic Lindsey Graham once said, in essence, that all 99 of Cruz's U.S. Senate colleagues would be happy if someone killed the Texas senator.)  As both Professor Dorf and I have noted in passing a few times (e.g., here, here, and here), Cruz's principal undergraduate extracurricular activity was parliamentary debating, with which both of us also have some familiarity.

As I have been watching Cruz's increasingly extreme performative and content-free politics over the last few years, I have found myself thinking again and again about how his experiences on the debate circuit all those years ago seem obviously to have shaped the political black hole that he has now become.  What is going on with this guy?

Parliamentary debating does not involve research or the boxes full of "evidence cards" that might be familiar to readers who recall so-called on-topic debating in high school or college.  Formally based on the Oxford style, though impossibly distorted in only a few short years by American undergraduates (mostly at highly selective colleges), parliamentary debate penalizes the anti-style of speed talking and supposedly rewards thinking on one's feet.

I say "supposedly," because thinking on one's feet is not something that everyone can do, and those who want to succeed in parliamentary debate without possessing the necessary analytical talent can find shortcuts that lead to success.  These include running "canned cases," which essentially means preparing arguments before knowing what the topic of debate will be, and most importantly, transparent reliance on style over substance.  During my years on the circuit, I found it easy to distinguish between Content debaters and Style debaters.
The thing is, the Style debaters sometimes won.  Even though the debates were judged by other debaters, who for the most part would end up going to law school and who could presumably notice that Style debaters' arguments had little or no content, it was still possible for Style debaters to win, even at the top level.  Without naming names, I can say that the national championships that I watched in the 1980's were won by Style debaters at least a third of the time.  Sometimes, as when Professor Dorf and his partner, History Professor Ben Alpers, won it all in 1986, the Content debaters were also stylistically impressive.  (Alpers and Dorf would surely, however, never have viewed themselves as silver-tongued orators.)  Even so, there were several years in which one could only walk out of the final round shaking one's head at the outcome and thinking, "How could anyone have voted for that non-argument?"

I stopped coaching the Harvard parliamentary debate team shortly before Cruz's Freshman year at Princeton, so I never saw him debate.  But because of his notoriety, and because so many veterans of the debate circuit populate the political and media landscape (Senator Chris Coons, loser-of-multiple-elections-in-Kansas Kris Kobach, economic advisor Austan Goolsbee, legal reporter Dahlia Lithwick), I have been able to read a surprising amount about Cruz's debating tactics.  I also know a person who informally advised the Princeton team while Cruz was there, and we have discussed these matters as well.

Cruz was a Style debater.  One factoid that encapsulates his approach is that he apparently passed his partner a note as the partner was about to start speaking: "Be outraged!"  Cruz's style was to stoke emotions, and he did have some success.

Even so, Cruz never won it all.  Part of the problem is that the Style debaters who did overcome their lack of content were well liked, and they sometimes were also blessed with final-round opponents who were reviled.  One year, another debater said to me after voting for the Style debater to win the national championship: "Yeah, he didn't really say a lot, but he was very smooth, and everyone likes him.  And I couldn't imagine voting for that one dick on the other team."

What makes this all so interesting to me currently is that Cruz has discovered a way to be very -- but not completely -- successful in politics by repurposing his anti-Content approach from parliamentary debate.  Style debaters were not merely flowery orators, although breathy emotional appeals were often their stock in trade.  They were also prone to taking arguments out of context and making content-like arguments with no content.  "Style" was not just a speaking style but a dishonest, content-hostile approach to responding to one's opponents.

Take some recent examples from Cruz.  At a recent conservative conclave in Washington, Cruz made it clear that he is determined to amp up his folksy-guy speaking style.  This is often a successful approach, but again, there has to be some ineffable kind of friendliness underneath (think of Cruz's fellow Texans George W. Bush and Rick Perry), no matter how thin it might be.  Cruz clearly lacks that.  But what caught my attention was Cruz's riff about mask-wearing, which was classic diversionary Style debater chic.  Allow me to explain.

Content debaters often invoked slippery-slope arguments to great effect.  Noticing this, Style debaters beat slippery-slope arguments into the ground, and they similarly attacked any kind of line-drawing exercise.  Early in the pandemic, for example, some right wingers responded to the CDC's recommendation that people stay six feet apart by asking why six feet is exactly the right distance.  Why not 5 feet and 11 inches?  Where did this arbitrary number come from?  Why are these elites telling you that you cannot stand where you want, when the difference between 6 feet and 5 feet is only 12 inches?

It is all rather silly, of course, but we hear it all the time.  Why do I need 120 credits to graduate?  Am I suddenly "educated" if I take a two-credit writing course but a knuckle-dragging moron if I only have 118 credits?  And what about speed limits, or pollution particulate thresholds?  How dare you hold me to an arbitrary standard?

At the D.C. conference, Cruz performed his mock outrage in response to the guidance that people should wear masks when they are in restaurants but can take them off when sitting at a table.  He then went on to overplay the slippery-slope approach by saying that double-masking would lead to triple- and quadruple-masking, and he derided Dr. Anthony Fauci's statement that we'll need to wear masks a bit longer by claiming that "we're going to wear masks for the next 300 years."
Similarly, at a hearing this week about gun violence, Cruz went into automatic outrage mode (or is it semi-automatic?) when some Democrats said that they were tired of the "thoughts and prayers" non-response from Republicans.  Cruz wailed: "I don’t apologize for thoughts or prayers!  And the contempt of Democrats for prayers is an odd sociological thing!"  (Beyond everything else, what an odd word-choice thing.)  This is exactly the same move that he made in response to the band The Chicks dropping the word "Dixie" from their name, saying that they had told "the entire South to piss off."

Yes, The Chicks obviously told the entire South to piss off (because clearly all southerners love being associated with the Confederacy), and when Democrats say that empty statements about "thoughts and prayers" are no substitute for action, Cruz leaps up to say that they have "contempt for prayers."  This is old-fashioned demagoguery, of course, but it is the particular kind of demagoguery that the Style debaters spend years honing.

As I noted above, Style debaters sometimes succeed, but not all that often, because parliamentary debaters as a whole have enough respect for content to prevent parliamentary debates from becoming nothing more than dramatic readings.  Cruz, however, has grown old while somehow remaining stunted in his college debate years.  Be outraged!  Ridicule rules.  Say that all slopes are slippery.  Distort, distort, distort.
George H.W. Bush made it to the White House in part by telling people that Michael Dukakis did not respect the flag and that violent Black men were being unleashed on White neighborhoods.  Ted Cruz thinks that everything can be Willie Hortoned.  Maybe he is right, and maybe he can make himself less repellent to just enough people to get to the White House.  But I doubt it.