Texas Two-Step

ted_cruz2The junior senator from Texas would not appreciate the comparison, but freshman fire-brand Ted Cruz has risen higher and faster in the United States Senate than even the legendary Texan Lyndon Johnson. It took LBJ only two years in the Senate to win election as minority leader and then two years later he was the top Democrat in the country, standing astride the Senate as majority leader, cutting deals with Ike. Cruz is on a faster trajectory.

In the considered opinion of Tony Perkins, one of the leaders of the social conservative wing of the GOP, Sen. Cruz  “has become a de facto leader of the Republican Party. He is what people are looking for. Somebody who will stand up and say, ‘This is what I stand for, this is what I believe.'”

Texas native Bob Schieffer appeared astounded last Sunday about the rapid rise of Cruz and he asked Sen. John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas who Cruz has declined to endorse for re-election, about just how it is that the young man in a hurry has become the party’s chief strategist and spokesman.

“Let me just ask you this,” Schieffer said on Face the Nation. “You’ve been around for a while.  How is it that you wind up with a freshman senator, who’s been in office less than a year, becomes the architect of this thing that has the two sides so gridlocked that nobody seems to know a way out of it?  How did that happen?”

Choosing his words carefully and looking a little taken aback, the number two Republican in the Senate covered for his non-collegial colleague from Texas, “I think what Ted and so many others are addressing is the fear in this country that we are careening down a path that unless we stop and correct it, in terms of spending, in terms of government over reach, that our country will become something we don’t even recognize,” Cornyn said.

The operative word in Cornyn’s sentence is “fear” and in the long history of the United States Senate only two men in modern times rose as far and as fast as Ted Cruz has in 2013. Huey Long did it in the early 1930’s and Joe McCarthy did it in the early 1950’s. And make no mistake, Ted Cruz is of a piece with those great Senate demagogues of the past. His tactics and use of fear come right out of the same old playbook.

Writing in the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen made explicit the Cruz-McCarthy axis. Part of McCarthy’s eventual downfall was that he never made the early-50’s transition from print to television, but Cruz is a master of the soundbite media. It is telling that the images on Cruz’s official Senate website are nearly all from one of his countless appearances on cable talk shows or C-Span.

“Cruz has both a comely appearance and a mastery of his message,” Cohen wrote, “A viewing of [Cruz on Meet the Press recently], as well as a close reading of the transcript, reveals a man who speaks in whole sentences, actual paragraphs and who feels no obligation, moral or otherwise, to actually answer a question. The English language exited his mouth ready for publication. Cruz does not clear his throat. He does not repeat the question while he riffles through memorized talking points. At every turn, he made Harry Reid the heavy — if only the Democratic Senate leader could be reasonable! — while he, Cruz, and his allies were the very soul of moderation.”

Joe McCarthy’s bogie-man was, of course, nameless, faceless communists in the United States government. Ted Cruz’s villain also has an ominous name – Obamacare. “Just like the Communist menace of the past, the Affordable Care Act cannot be seen nor, given the Obama administration’s inept selling effort, even understood,” Cohen wrote. “Until just now, it didn’t even exist, although in Cruz’s telling it has already forced good people from their jobs and soon, no doubt, from their very homes as well.”

And just like Tail Gunner Joe waving about his made up lists of communists in the State Department, Ted Cruz confidently alleges, without the slightest evidence of course, that “Obamacare is the biggest job-killer in the country.”

Just like Huey Long, the silver-tongued demagogue from Winn Parish, Louisiana, the glib honors grad from Princeton has become by many accounts the most hated man in the Senate, a charge Cruz flicks away with a smile. “Look, what the Democrats are trying to do is make this a battle of personalities,” Cruz told Megan Kelly on Fox, “they have engaged in relentless, nasty personal attacks…I don’t intend to defend myself. I don’t intend to reciprocate.

A nasty personal attack is obviously only a nasty personal attack when it is aimed at the junior senator. When Cruz suggested very McCarthy-like, and with absolutely no evidence, that fellow Republican Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, former Senator and now Secretary of Defense, was hiding foreign sources of income during his confirmation hearings, the Texas senator was, in his view, merely engaging in honest, high-minded inquiry.

“We do not know, for example, if [Hagel] received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups,” Cruz said just before the Armed Service Committee voted on confirmation. “It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.” This time-tested political tactic – make your opponent deny an outrageous charge – is, in the hands of a glib communicator, the slick and oily stuff that made Long and McCarthy household names.

Like Cruz, Huey assailed the leadership of his own party, demanding in 1932 that Democrats needed more “radical” leadership. “Waltzing up and down the aisle, mopping his brow with a pink handkerchief, Long dramatically resigned from all Senate committees,” historian Cecil Weller has written, so as not to be obligated to his party’s Senate leadership. “We cannot sit here and tell the people that they can swap the devil for a witch,” Long said in condemning what he considered the timid leadership of his own party.

Some Republicans have started to push back against Cruz, but with the exception of Sen. John McCain few are doing so in public and the reason is that one word – fear. McCain has called Cruz a “wacko bird” and has condemned the defund Obamacare strategy as “not rational” and a “fool’s errand.” But Cruz’s defenders, like Brent Bozell, founder and president of the Media Research Center, ride immediately to his defense just as McCarthy’s acolytes once did.

Bozell blasted McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee for president, for being among the “whiners” and “faux conservatives” who have criticized Cruz for leading the fight that triggered the government shutdown. Meanwhile, the junior senator stands nearby soaking up the cheers and offering his telegenic smile.

Most Republicans were tragically slow to condemn McCarthy and his tactics in the 50’s and most Democrats flinched at confronting Long in the 30’s. Like Cruz, each of the earlier demagogues commanded a national following and were willing to threaten and browbeat any opponent. The fear factor worked, at least for a while. Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings, a conservative Democrat, was among the first to label McCarthy “a fraud and a hoax.” McCarthy quickly got even using a completely fabricated photo of Tydings allegedly talking with an American communist leader to help defeat the long-time senator. By the same token, Long’s grip on the south was so solid after 1932 that few people in positions of real power were willing to risk his wrath by calling him out.

Ted Cruz’s rise to the top of the Republican Party has been just as fast – he has after all used many of the same successful tactics – as Long and McCarthy, but the boy wonder from Texas may find that his trip down from the mountain top occurs just as fast. Once the Senate, and particularly those in their own parties, got a belly full of the antics of Huey and Joe their days of fear and effectiveness were numbered. The Tea Party faction of the GOP considers Cruz a hero today, but his fortunes also sink right along with his doomed strategy to shutdown the government, engage in glib accusations and hardly disguised character assault.

Ultimately it will be up to Republicans to embrace or reject the junior senator from Texas, because he is more about them than the country. As Republicans mull that stark choice; a choice that could do so much to shape the party’s future electoral success, it would be well to ponder the crystal clear words of a long ago senator from Maine – Margaret Chase Smith. On June 1, 1950, the prim and proper Sen. Smith took to the Senate floor to chastise her colleagues and call the GOP to its better angels.

“As a Republican, I say to my colleagues on this side of the aisle that the Republican Party faces a challenge today that is not unlike the challenge that it faced back in Lincoln’s day,” Smith said in one of the great speeches in Senate history. “The Republican Party so successfully met that challenge that it emerged from the Civil War as the champion of a united nation—in addition to being a party that unrelentingly fought loose spending and loose programs.

“Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of ‘know nothing, suspect everything’ attitudes. Today we have a Democratic administration that has developed a mania for loose spending and loose programs. History is repeating itself—and the Republican Party again has the opportunity to emerge as the champion of unity and prudence.

“The record of the present Democratic administration has provided us with sufficient campaign issues without the necessity of resorting to political smears. America is rapidly losing its position as leader of the world simply because the Democratic administration has pitifully failed to provide effective leadership.”

Margaret Chase Smith entitled her famous speech “National Suicide” and it was aimed primarily, of course, at McCarthy and his ilk, but also contained a very practical political warning that seems eerily appropriate today.

To merely displace a Democratic administration, Smith said, “with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this Nation. The Nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.

“I doubt if the Republican Party could—simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.

“I don’t want to see the Republican Party win that way. While it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people. Surely it would ultimately be suicide for the Republican Party and the two-party system that has protected our American liberties from the dictatorship of a one-party system.

“As members of the minority party, we do not have the primary authority to formulate the policy of our Government. But we do have the responsibility of rendering constructive criticism, of clarifying issues, of allaying fears by acting as responsible citizens.”

Quite a speech. I wonder if anyone is capable of giving such a speech in the United States Senate today?

 

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