It shouldn’t have been this way.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is an undeniably smart man. Cruz is by all accounts a brilliant litigator, one talented enough in the courtroom to clerk for a Supreme Court justice and win a number of difficult cases as Texas’ Solicitor General. It wouldn’t have been crazy to expect that Cruz would bring a degree of argumentative rigor into the Senate after his victory in the 2012 election.
Well, Cruz had two golden opportunities to showcase his keen analytical mind, as he sits on both Senate committees that held high profile hearings last week, one on gun violence prevention, the other on Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE)’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense. And Cruz distinguished himself alright. Just not in the way one might have hoped.
The Senator misrepresented official documents to the point of falsehood, placed the words of an raving call-in viewer on a television show in Hagel’s mouth, and played “six degrees of guilt by association” with Hagel’s record in a manner that would make Sen. Joe McCarthy blush. And yet, Cruz’ behavior, embarrassing as it was, was by no means irrational. Rather, it’s a perfect illustration of how the Republican Party’s internal structure, particularly its allied media and electoral base, incentivizes the replacement of real policy thinking with fact-free paranoic fantasism.
Let’s begin with Cruz’ monologue at the gun hearing. The proposed assault weapons ban bore the brunt of his ire. He leaned heavily what he claimed were two Department of Justice papers — one from what he sneeringly characterized as the “Janet Reno Department of Justice under President Clinton” — that had proven the 1994 ban failed to reduce gun violence. In his words, the Senate was about “to reenact a law that, according to the Department of Justice, did absolutely nothing to reduce gun violence.”
Literally every claim in that sentence is false.
First, the Senate is not “reenacting” the 1994 ban. The law proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) closes a series of loopholes that even gun regulation proponents admit limited the first ban’s effectiveness. Second, the studies in question were not official judgments of the Department of Justice, as Cruz says, but research by Professor Christopher S. Koper supported by the Department.
Which brings to the third, and most important, point: any fair reading of Koper’s work suggests Cruz has entirely mischaracterized its findings about the ban – a reading shared by Prof. Koper himself. Koper’s research found, among other things, clear evidence that the 1994 ban limited criminal access to assault weapons as well more tentative evidence that assault weapon shootings were more deadly. While it’s true the studies didn’t find evidence that the bans reduced the homicide rate, they didn’t, as Cruz suggests, conclude from that that the ban didn’t work. Rather, Koper said that he didn’t have enough data, given that the ban was only in effect for ten years, to prove for one way or another. That’s why Koper, in a 2004 op-ed, referred to the then-expiring ban as a “work in progress” rather than, as Cruz suggested, a failure. And the assault weapons ban is far from the only issue on which Cruz did violence to the facts in the gun hearing.
As fact-free as Cruz’ diatribe during the guns hearing was, it had nothing on his performance the following day during Senator Hagel’s confirmation. During the excruciatingly long proceedings, Cruz had three chances to interrogate Hagel, each time resorting to grosser distortions of the former Senator’s statements to prove that Hagel was every Israeli’s worst nightmare.
In round one, Cruz played a tape of a rather concerned man calling into a talk show on which Hagel was a guest. The video was spliced to make it appear Hagel agreed with the ranter’s accusation of “war crimes in Palestine.” In reality, Hagel was endorsing, on the program host’s instruction, the need for “moral leadership” by the United States and Russia on nuclear arms reduction, a point made clear by his reference in the full clip to President Obama and then-President Medvedev. After Hagel said he did not believe Israel was committing war crimes, and asked for the full context of the clip, Cruz lied, saying “that was the full context.”
Cruz’ second attempt to cast Hagel as Israeli Public Enemy #1 was equally dishonest. Cruz ventriloquized the claim that Israel had committed a “sickening slaughter” in Lebanon into Hagel’s mouth, even though, as Dave Weigel points out, Hagel was condemning deaths in war themselves rather than Israel’s behavior. And his third sally, a failed attempt to tar Hagel with the views on Israel of someone on the board of an organization he chairs (yes, it’s that remote), struck The New Republic‘s John Judis as “classic McCarthy tactics.”
Judged kindly, Cruz’ performance in each of these two hearings was aggressively inaccurate. Judged more harshly (and accurately), it was mendacious demagoguery at its finest.
So why would Cruz, an intelligent man, resort to such dishonest tactics? There are certainly no shortage of ways to make the case against gun regulation or Chuck Hagel without mischaracterizing research or wrenching stray comments out of context.
But that’s not nearly as fun.
Guns and Israel are two issues of paramount importance to staple GOP voting blocs. These voters don’t want mealy-mouthed, hedged defenses of their positions — as evidenced by the Great RINO Purge of the past few election cycles. Rather, these voters want Republicans who see the world as they do: President Obama and the Democrats are attempting to attack their fundamental liberties and eliminate America’s “exceptional” global role, most prominently by “throwing Israel under the bus.” For these voters, the Assault Weapons Ban isn’t just bad policy; it’s a nefarious, unconstitutional gun grab that strikes at the heart of American liberty. Chuck Hagel hasn’t been more qualified in his support for Israel than Republicans would like; he’s an anti-Semite.
Cruz rode this apocalyptic mood to power, pairing a worldview extreme enough to please the base with packaging just well enough to make him acceptable to more establishment folks. As Mother Jones‘ Tim Murphy writes in a profile of the Senator, “Cruz’s greatest asset is that he lives in both worlds;” he’s “an intellectual face on a movement and ideology that have long simmered beneath the Republican mainstream.” Cruz pioneered a marriage between extreme ideas with a manner of expression that allows the party’s “respectable” thought leaders to support it.
Understanding the central dynamic of Cruz’ political strategy is the key to unlocking his intellectually abysmal outings at the Senate last week. His base wants the fireworks, but straight-up calling Hagel an anti-Semite on the Senate floor might be a bit much. So Cruz wraps up more extreme versions of his arguments in intellectual-sounding garb, citing studies and TV clips that are just good enough to justify his firebreathing.
Now, this strategy would fail if the conservative media said base relies on weren’t interested in playing along to Cruz’ tune. But the writers who are supposed to serve as conservatism’s intellectual gatekeepers lapped it up. “It would be hard to do much better,” National Review‘s Peter Kirsanow wrote, “than one of Hagel’s interlocutors — Senator Ted Cruz.” In response to criticism of Cruz’s arguments as, well, totally made up, Kirsanow scoffed. “Cruz should be pleased to be the subject of such scorn. Smart, principled, aggressive, conservative Republicans are subject to special opprobrium from Beltway elites.”
Kirsanow was far from the only one. “Sorry I missed @tedcruz carving up Chuck Hagel on TV like a roast,” tweeted RedState editor and Fox News contributor Erick Erickson. “Cruz showed what happens when preparation, talent, and discipline come together,” gushed Pete Spiliakos at the theoconservative journal First Things. Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin enthused that “tough questioning” from Cruz and other Republicans exposed “Hagel’s pose as a consistent and ardent friend of Israel and foe of Iran…to be nothing but a hastily constructed façade that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.” These are but a few examples from a vast ocean.
This adulation illustrates just how deeply rooted GOP dysfunction is. The Republican base elects someone like Cruz, who’s extreme enough to have suggested the United Nations was coming for America’s golf courses. Cruz, who’s not only a ideological member of the base but beholden to it, brings its unsupportable ideas and implacably hostile attitude to the center of the Republican party. And he’s rewarded not just by adulation from his supporters, but widespread praise from the ostensibly serious conservative commentariat. There’s just no incentive for any Republican to speak out against the party’s descent into paranoia, and every reason to believe you’ll be rewarded by giving into it.
So if you want to know why the Republican Party will remain broken for the foreseeable future, go watch the Ted Cruz game tape from this week. And try to think how it could have been otherwise.