Ted Cruz and our cynical "Walking Dead" politics: "He's a complete charlatan, you know"

Ted Cruz is a political nihilist and a creature of the very cynicism his scorched-earth politics helped create

By Michael Signer
Published April 1, 2015 2:59PM (EDT)
  (Jeff Malet/maletphoto/<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/profile/everlite'>everlite</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>/Photo montage by Salon)
(Jeff Malet/maletphoto/everlite via iStock/Photo montage by Salon)

When Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for the presidency at Liberty University in Virginia, he did so by citing “a 38-year-old lawyer named Patrick Henry” who, in Cruz’s words, “stood up just a hundred miles from here in Richmond, Virginia, and said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Cruz then said, “I want to ask each of you to imagine, imagine millions of courageous conservatives, all across America, rising up together to say in unison, 'We demand our liberty.'”

I call bull.

As the author of a recent book about the battle between Cruz’s idol Patrick Henry and the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, I believe it’s worth reflecting on Cruz as a force in politics today—a corrosive and alarming force, at that.

Like Madison, Cruz graduated from Princeton.  Like Madison, Cruz was an esteemed college debater and a member of Princeton’s famous Whig-Cliosophic Society.

But the similarities stop there.  Where Cruz departs most dramatically—and dangerously—from the Madison parallel is in his reliance on, and exploitation of, the cynicism eroding politics today.

In 1783, Patrick Henry, then the popular and opportunistic governor of Virginia, proposed a new tax to benefit Christian churches.  James Madison, appalled, rose on the floor of Virginia’s General Assembly to nip the idea in the bud.

Madison was a tiny and unsteady figure in public debate.  He stood 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed a hundred pounds and suffered from chronic and debilitating anxiety attacks.  Yet he was able to dominate debate by challenging the people to rise above their prejudices.

In a wavering voice, Madison lambasted the proposal on moral, practical and historical grounds in a speech on the floor of Virginia’s Assembly.  He then turned that speech into a letter, which in turn sparked a petition drive that gathered 10,000 signatures and overwhelmed Henry’s proposal.

In such moments, you could never accuse Madison either of cynicism or self-promotion.  On the contrary, the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall observed, “Eloquence has been defined to be the art of persuasion.  If it includes persuasion by convincing, Mr. Madison was the most eloquent man I ever heard.”

Ted Cruz, on the other hand, is a creature of the very cynicism that his brand of scorched-earth politics has helped create.  In the Wall Street Journal, Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan recently cited a colleague of Cruz’s saying, “He’s a complete charlatan, you know.”

Today, we live in an epically bad era for politics.  Congressional approval ratings are their lowest ever.  Barack Obama ran an extraordinarily successful grass-roots campaign whose three-part aspiration—hope, change and unity—depended on the premise that faith in politics was possible again, that leaders could work together on the grandest challenges, that the Senate might become productive again, that the public could be engaged again.

Yet Obama’s opposition in Congress—largely led by the Tea Party forces who worship Cruz and who will form the base of his support in places like the Iowa caucuses—took Obama’s “hopey-changey stuff” (in Sarah Palin’s noxious phrase) and bashed Obama with it.  The foundation of Obama’s policies on things like healthcare, immigration, climate change and infrastructure was precisely that people might believe politicians could work together again on big-picture solutions.  When the Tea Party decided to destroy those moorings, they came close to collapsing the Obama presidency.

They did so at peril to the country itself.  This is where Cruz comes in.  We went to Princeton together, overlapping by one year.  I didn’t know him, but people said the same things about the national champion college debater that they say today: that he was slick, arrogant, ambitious and insincere.  The problem with debate, unmoored from conviction, is that it’s just a contest for points.

Even today, every sentence that comes out of Cruz’s mouth seems engineered for debate points—just this time with far-right Republican caucus-goers in Iowa.  Whether he is assailing Obamacare or immigration policies, it’s enabled precisely by the fact that people who would otherwise call bull are turned away from their screens in disgust.

Nowhere is this worse than in the U.S. Senate, an already crippled institution that Cruz cheerfully helped wreck even more, right after arriving there, whereupon he shut down the government rather than address the debt ceiling.  The Senate has solely been a theatrical stage for such Cruz gestures.  He has not tried to legislate, only to remonstrate.

Yet Madison designed the Senate precisely for the opposite purpose: for the rewarding work of legislating by citizen experts who lead the public on challenging issues.  At the Constitutional Convention, Madison described the Senate he was designing as a “necessary fence” against the danger of “fickleness and passion” and “impetuous counsels.”

Ironically, Madison was never able to serve in the U.S. Senate, the institution where he would have been most well-suited, precisely because his enemy Patrick Henry, back in the governorship after Madison defeated him in the battle to ratify the Constitution, retaliated by denying Madison the seat.

The Senate today is almost totally broken.  In their "It’s Even Worse Than It Looks," the bipartisan team of political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann analyze why, and they place the blame squarely at the feet of the ruthless extremist politics designed by Newt Gingrich in the early 1990s.  In 1994, Gingrich circulated a memo to Republican candidates to run against incumbent Democrats by using the following words: “betray, bizarre, decay, anti-flag, anti-family, pathetic, lie, cheat, radical, sick, and traitors.”

This is political nihilism, pure and simple.  For now, Ted Cruz cheerfully roams a barren and burnt political landscape that he helped create.  We deserve far better than this "Walking Dead" scenario.

Of many perverse element of Cruz’s launch, the worst was his attempt to wrest the optimism of American exceptionalism toward a political philosophy that seems almost wholly destructive.  In his Liberty University speech, he said, “From the dawn of this country, at every stage America has enjoyed God’s providential blessing ... You know, compared to that, repealing Obamacare and abolishing the IRS ain’t all that tough.”

By Virginia’s convention in 1788 in Richmond to ratify the Constitution, Cruz’s idol Patrick Henry had become a vicious opponent of the new federal Constitution and resolved to destroy it in the convention.

Against the anti-Federalists’ fearmongering that the Constitution would collapse because men would turn against each other, Madison won the day by boldly defending the central premise of his Constitution: that the people would have “virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom” in government.  Without that presumed “virtue in the people,” he explained, even liberty itself would be a “chimerical idea.”

The delegates in Richmond ultimately cast their votes with Madison’s optimism rather than Henry’s own cynicism.

Cruz’s ultimate demise—let’s hope, let’s pray—will come at the hands of Republican voters who find themselves wanting to be called not to their demons, but to their higher angels.

Michael Signer

Michael Signer is the author of the new book "Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father"

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