Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign is going to lean pretty heavily on the resentments of the Republican Party’s conservative base. In Cruz, the right flank of the party will find a candidate who will fight to reclaim the “religious freedom” they’ve lost to married gay people and take them back to a time when Values Voters and NASCAR Moms picked presidents. And, of course, he'll stick it to the liberal media, which won’t give any Republican a fair shake, especially Ted Cruz.
In an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, Cruz pushed back against what he described as a media-invented caricature of him as a “wild-eyed lunatic with dynamite around my chest.” The press gets it deliberately wrong on issues like the debt ceiling, Cruz said, in order to make him out to be a wild man, when really he’s just a simple man fighting for Common Sense Conservative™ principles:
"Historically the media's had two caricatures for Republicans—that we are either stupid or evil," he explained over a Tex-Mex lunch in Houston. "They've to some extent invented a third caricature for me, which is crazy. I get portrayed in a lot of outlets as a wild-eyed lunatic with dynamite around my chest."
"You know, at the end of the day, that doesn't bother me because it's fundamentally false," he concluded. "I've got real confidence that the American people make their own judgment."
Cruz said, for example, that he doesn't oppose raising the U.S. debt limit, but rather simply wants to pair that action with spending cuts. Whatever controversy Medicare inspired during the battle to create it, he calls it today "a fundamental bulwark of our society" that must be reformed and preserved.
Cruz is right: insisting that spending cuts be paired with any debt limit increase is not an especially controversial position, insofar as most Republicans would agree with him on that score. But Cruz would like us to think that he’s being unfairly vilified for holding this position, or that people are mischaracterizing his stance as opposition to any increase in the debt ceiling. It’s a cutesy game that Cruz plays in which he skips right past the actual reason his debt limit antics were controversial in order to cast himself as a victim.
If you’ll recall, the last debt limit fight happened in February 2014. After several failed attempts to use the threat of default to try and force concessions from the Democrats and the White House, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner were prepared to let a “clean” debt limit increase pass Congress, partly because they didn’t want any drama heading into the midterm elections, but mainly because Republicans couldn’t agree on which hostage to take.
Conservatives were upset, but the leadership had its strategy and (with Democratic support) the votes to make it happen. Then Ted Cruz, the man who chafes at being portrayed as a suicide bomber, stepped in at the last minute and tried to blow everything up. Cruz announced that he would filibuster the Senate’s debt limit legislation, thereby forcing Republicans to help carry it to the finish line. “I will insist instead on a 60-vote threshold,” Cruz said in a statement, “and if Republicans stand together we can demand meaningful spending restraint to help pull our nation back from the fiscal and economic cliff.” Republicans had to scramble to corral the necessary votes to invoke cloture and prevent a default, which would have carried with it dire economic consequences.
But here’s the thing: Cruz had no plan for actually getting to the point of attaching spending cuts to a debt limit increase. He never identified which spending areas he wanted to see cut, and his strategy for forcing the White House’s hand never progressed beyond “if Republicans stand together.” Sure, he demanded “spending restraint,” but that was secondary to his primary aim of derailing the process and shaming Republican leaders. His approach to the debt limit fight wasn’t to actually cut spending – it was to cause a scene at the precise moment when causing that scene would provoke the most drama.
Now he’s acting hurt and put-out and suggesting that people are deliberately scandalizing his unremarkable policy position in order to make him out to be an idiot or a lunatic. Ted Cruz isn’t crazy and he’s certainly not stupid. No, he has far greater character flaws. He’s reckless and self-absorbed, and when confronted with his reckless self-absorption, he treats the rest of us like we’re stupid.