Ted Cruz Isn't Crazy – He's Much Worse

Cruz knows exactly what he's doing

"For a long time, the left has had two caricatures of conservatives: that we are either stupid or evil," Ted Cruz is fond of saying. "I take it as a backhanded compliment that they have, to some extent, invented a third category for me: 'crazy.'" Credit: Porter Gifford/Corbis

In no particular order, Texas senator and Republican presidential aspirant Ted Cruz has: said acts of Christian terrorism stopped centuries ago, forgetting the Ku Klux Klan and the shooting in Colorado last week; claimed he has never met an anti-abortion activist who advocates violence, despite being endorsed by one just days before; dismissed the need for Planned Parenthood because there isn't a shortage of "rubbers" in America; and made an offhand comment that Colorado mass shooter Robert Dear could be a "transgendered leftist activist." All this in just the last week.

Cruz also has a favorite line he likes to use, which appears on the stump and in his book. "For a long time, the left has had two caricatures of conservatives: that we are either stupid or evil. I take it as a backhanded compliment that they have, to some extent, invented a third category for me: 'crazy.'" It's typical Cruz: both self-aggrandizing and distant from the truth, with a little temporizing statement ("to some extent") that rescues the self-aggrandizing part from being an outright lie. Either way, it's wrong.

Ted Cruz is far from crazy, which is the essential Ted Cruz problem. Crazy you can deal with, even forgive a little, often ignore. Ben Carson is a bowl of Froot Loops floating in a sad lethal pond of gasoline. Donald Trump went warp speed into the Trumpiverse decades ago. Both men have conducted their campaigns and recent years on perpetual tangents. But Ted Cruz knows exactly what he's doing. He doesn't even hide it particularly well. Not only is his intelligence one of his favorite selling points, his book undermines any notion that he misspeaks. He is gaffe proof because the gaffes are not arrived at by error. Ted Cruz does awful things by intelligent design.

***

Weeks ago, the staff at MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes asked me to review presidential campaign books for them, mostly because no one wanted to read the damn things. Campaign books rarely strive to be good, much less literary. They're meant to generate revenue and an excuse to go on talk shows, while their (usually ghostwritten) composition solidifies speeches for the stump. If you follow a campaign, you've already heard two-thirds of their howlers, spooky stories and too-perfect anecdotes.

Ted Cruz's book, A Time for Truth, is, by comparison, almost delightful. It's a testament to the fatuous politispeak repetition of campaign books that one penned by a man who clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and became solicitor general of Texas manages to surprise you for not only being smartly not-ghostwritten but also well-paced and occasionally funny and persuasive. It's no Education of Henry Adams, but it's enjoyable and well-crafted. Even if he is not always likable, Young Ted Cruz is an interesting person. 

But once you get about halfway through the book – to national events that were part of your own memory, where you could pen the story yourself, where you are no longer reading memories so far outside the fact checker's reach that you have to take Cruz's word for it – suddenly you realize that what makes Ted Cruz's book so exceptional is what makes him exceptionally nasty.

For one thing, there is no plausible excuse for someone who graduated cum laude from Princeton, went to Harvard Law and clerked on the Supreme Court not doing the reading, but the Cruz argument, whatever it is, coasts through an environment in which there is no data to challenge it. In fact, all that lawyerly skill at crafting an argument seems to have been marshaled in service of careful elision — points that are true out of context or that are framed in such a briefly qualifying way as to avoid outright falsehood.

For instance, despite being a 340-page work, the book possesses only 66 end notes, the plurality of which are dedicated to citing quotes from famous conservatives or noteworthy persons Cruz expects resonate with a right-wing audience. A paucity of end notes isn't really glaring for these books; take away the double-spacing, and many conservative campaign books' works cited pages could be printed on two Post-Its. But it stands out when someone like Cruz inveighs against Obamacare — his senatorial career's Moby-Dick — and only comes up with ham-handed anecdotes about meeting struggling Americans in the heartland.

There's a young woman in North Platte, Nebraska, whose ex doesn't pay child support. She hugs Cruz and says, "I'm a single mom… I've got six kids at home, and I'm working five jobs. Not a single one of those jobs is even thirty hours per week, because Obamacare kicks in at thirty hours a week." The really difficult questions to answer would have been whether a single mother of six children would qualify for significant amounts of aid, and especially whether she would have qualified for the Medicaid expansion if conservatives in the Nebraskan legislature had not rejected it, so of course the questions are not asked. Not even when he mentions the millions still without insurance, who might also live in Nebraska, or Florida, or Texas, or Louisiana, or Alabama, or Mississippi or many other conservative-controlled states that rejected the Medicaid expansion.

And, in any event, there are the familiar dual horrors of rising premiums and Obama saying, "If you like your plan, you can keep it." Naturally, Cruz ignores that premiums rose before Obamacare, that insurance companies Chicken Little all the time about rate hikes before rolling them back, and that part of the rise relates to people who are actually sick being able to get medical care that insurance companies actually have to pay for now

On that last point, for a litigator, Cruz seems really allergic to using a wonderful legal word like "rescission," which is too bad, because it explains rate hikes and changing plans. Simply put, before Obamacare, when insurance companies could rescind your contract the moment you needed costly treatment after paying for years, it was very easy to have a cheap plan you'd want to keep. Those great plans with low premiums stopped existing when the law required that they benefit more than one party in the contract. But mentioning that would spoil the image of poor insurance companies that Cruz suggests were "lured into bed with Obamacare" via the Leninist thinking that "the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." Poor butterflies. 

There you go. Well, I talked to some folks. Also, Lenin.

Other lawyerly reframing is at least more fun. His description of the 2000 South Carolina primary is an exercise in post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Cruz describes the Bush 2000 campaign as reeling from John McCain's win in New Hampshire and needing to refocus. Luckily, Cruz notes, the Bush campaign could run to the right of McCain on tort and campaign finance reform, two issues that get the people to the polls in droves! As it happens, those were two issues that Ted Cruz briefed George W. Bush on, while touring the state with him, which Bush later won. It suggests that, if not for his counsel on these critical points, the Bush campaign's larger war chest and its infamous push-poll asking residents of the historically racist state how they felt about John McCain's "black baby" might have had no effect at all. 

But if you want the Ted Cruz experience in a pinch, take his condemnation of biased journalism. He starts with your bog-standard, "Yes, almost all journalists are Democrats," which might surprise the massive journalism apparatus the right has created over 40 years, before choosing an odd target. "There is, however, a new, particularly noxious species of yellow journalism... It's called 'Politifact.'" Years from now we might lament that first they came with fact-checkers, and we said nothing. 

His proof is more interesting. He decries Politifact's labeling as "mostly false" a statement that he says was "an inadvertent error" and "it turns out that part of [my statement] was indeed mistaken." What singles Politifact out for bias is that they didn't fact check the entire speech. Never mind that the rest of the speech, like most Cruz speeches, might have been recycled and already fact checked. Never mind that newspapers are limited by space and that Fisking an average Cruz speech requires a ream of paper. Never mind that sometimes newspapers fact check interesting statements because they know readers will read it. Given that, please never mind that the fact that has Ted Cruz in high dudgeon was about the game Space Invaders. 

Moreover, Politifact evidently shamelessly editorialized when they fact-checked Cruz (and every conservative's) assertion that Obama kicked off his presidency by going on "a worldwide apology tour." Then, before confronting the issue, Cruz concedes, "It's true that he didn't explicitly add the words 'And I'm sorry.'" In fact, Obama "wasn't exactly bragging." So the new front in the liberal propaganda war is a fact check website that checked facts Cruz admits are not literally true without any poetical ear for interpretation.

***

Busting Ted Cruz for selective narrative and hanging massive public policy decisions on anecdotal evidence (the most reliable kind!) would seem like nitpicking, but he can't help himself. He surrounds moments of choosing to efface inconvenience with writing that is too accomplished for his decisions to be accidental. You throw in qualifying language and weasel words when you know a declarative statement will hang you. All that now I admit what I said wasn't literally true is there for a reason.

You don't need to nitpick books like Donald Trump's or Ben Carson's, because on their faces they're two of the most full-of-shit works ever published. One reads like it was dictated to a flunky from a limousine phone call, and one reads like a preteen frantically rewriting the text of their Encarta CD-ROM six hours before the assignment's due. But that's their role. Being stupid, arrogant and nuts drives their brand universes. Even books like Paul Ryan's and Marco Rubio's are lazy buzzword assemblages interrupted by performative grieving, because that's what they need to be.

You have to deal with Ted Cruz differently because he demands it, because his endless invocation of his scholarship and the sharp, nimble way he chooses to tell his own story signals that this is how deftly his brain operates. 

So when a Ted Cruz spokesman later walks back the candidate's comment that Robert Dear might have been a "transgendered leftist activist" by insisting that the candidate was just commenting on the lack of available information, you have to take it with a huge grain of salt. Yes, the full context of Cruz's statement is more openly speculative:

"The media promptly wants to blame him on the pro-life movement when at this point there's very little evidence to indicate that… It's also been reported that he was registered as an independent and a woman and a transgendered leftist activist. If that’s what he is, I don’t think it's fair to blame on the rhetoric on the left."

On the other hand, it's hard to believe that Cruz would seriously consider the breaking-news reporting of someone widely referred to as "The Dumbest Man on the Internet." Not unless it was useful. And not unless the word "transgendered" hadn't recently taken up position as the right wing's socially acceptable sexual panic designation. Having lost the ability to be considered civil for suggesting that all homosexuals are pederasts who seek to adopt children to molest them into gay indoctrination, the right has embraced the nightmare of the transgendered "predator in drag," invited into the women's restroom by liberal legislation for the fruits of rape and cross-dressed kiddie fiddling. It even worked in Houston, a city in a state Ted Cruz is from.

It's a powerful image to invoke, and it does a lot of heavy lifting. It shifts the conversation to candidate Ted Cruz. It distracts from conservatism's violent rhetoric against Planned Parenthood and forces the fact-check process to address Cruz's accusation. And it sets the monsters of Planned Parenthood — teen-sex abettors, fetal-destroyers, profaners of womanhood — along a perverted axis whose terminus might as well be a little girl locked behind a bathroom stall while the door rattles under the pounding of a set of hairy white knuckles. 

Sure, maybe he didn't mean that, but how lucky that someone might think that anyway. And, sure, this sort of discussion might constitute playing the game of interpretation, but if Cruz would condemn Politifact for not engaging in the practice, he can hardly fault others for taking his exhortation seriously.

Cruz is being interpretively nasty in part because of who he is, but also because fictionalizing America's crisis moments is dramatically successful. As the Ted Cruz phenomenon glides on, without a change in tone or a moment of hesitancy, it's easy to think of an old expression pro-wrestling expression: "Live the gimmick, brother."

The line has roots in old regional promotions, back when wrestling didn't admit to fans that everything was a work, when wrestlers took care never to ruin the illusion. But it also means that if you want to sell your character, you have to live it. A Texas redneck like Steve Anderson never caught on as a "Stunning" member of the Hollywood Blondes, but once he got a leather vest, two Budweisers, two middle fingers and the name Stone Cold Steve Austin, people connected to a character so real to a part of his experience that he could slip into it the moment he stepped outside. The wit that made him a masterful mic and ring psychologist — and an excellent interviewer today — meant that, when the lights went on, he was that rogue Texas Rattlesnake, and everyone recognized him.

A crazy person doesn't become the clerk to the Chief Justice of the United States. Crazy people don't get those jobs. Even a contradictory boil like Antonin Scalia has his logic: it's the hemorrhoidal resentment for foreignness and change that leads your granddad to rage at anything that threatens his fantasies of the good old days. Ted Cruz isn't any different, and buying his line that he's uniquely earned "Democrats'" label of crazy not only obscures the work, it's part of it. Ted Cruz knows that, for all his erudition, he's still an intellectual one-percenter in a party that rejects elites and revels in combative anti-knowledge. Reading his book is like watching him put his mask on in the morning: the pages wear on, and the incisive first half gets quieter, as the volume on the demagoguing second half gets louder, until there he is — Ted Cruz, brother — and the arena goes nuts.

Cruz has mastered the useful gaffe. He's playing the heel to the media he knows he can outrage enough to disseminate his comments, riding his name and statement for page views for a three-day cycle: outrage, interpretation, contrarian defense. And he's playing face to the fans at home who he knows already want to agree with him in whatever visceral jaundiced hell they inhabit. 

Ted Cruz is too smart not to know that replacing all of Planned Parenthood's services with "rubbers" is objectively stupid. He knows claiming that Christian terrorism has been dormant for centuries is a contemptuous violation of an even Jeopardy!-level understanding of history. He knows a bearded mass shooter who mentioned "baby parts" was probably not firing from the left side of the aisle in defense of his feminine identity, but he knows speculating about it commits him to nothing. These assertions form a web of cold malignancy too tactically useful to lack intent. It's a work, and it works. It's his ticket to the main event.

During Tuesday's primary, candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz had a bitter Twitter exchange.