The key to understanding Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz is not that he is a fighter or that he is an unwavering ideologue. To highlight his intelligence points the spotlight in the right direction but misses the mark. The man can give a speech, but that’s not quite the thing, either. The thing that explains Cruz, at least to me, is this: He is a debate nerd.
You don’t win a debate in high school or college by arguing your personal convictions but by marshalling the facts to prove or disprove a position regardless of what you actually believe. Taken to the extreme-which is where I think Cruz has gone with this-such an intellect prizes virtuosity and disregards morality. Whether or not Cruz really believes anything he says seems irrelevant because he’s so trained to get the gold star for seeming smart.
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying the man isn’t smart. There aren’t a lot of dummies who get through Princeton and Harvard Law, and Cruz certainly isn’t one of them. I am saying that the point of his intellect is to impress you with its virtuosity. He knows exactly what argument to make to win the crowd over. Whether or not he believes anything he says is irrelevant.
This started in high school when he joined a group of Milton Friedman acolytes who traveled the state reciting passages of the Constitution at Rotary meetings and the like. This is the original sin of the perversion of his formidable intellect. For seeming smart-reciting words with a practiced flourish-he won gold stars, and there were more out there.
There were a lot of gold stars to be found at Princeton where he won the top speaker award at the 1992 National Debating Championship and the 1992 North American Debating Championship. That year, he won the National Speaker of the Year. Princeton now has a debate award named after Cruz. At Harvard Law, professor Alan Dershowitz called him “off-the-charts brilliant.”
Of course, none of this proves that Cruz lacks a working guidance system. If the “debate nerd” theory of Cruz were correct, we’d need to see him in different situations to see whether his intellectual virtuosity or conservative ideology won the day.
As a presidential candidate, he wants to guard the Mexican border with IRS agents. As an adviser to the 2000 George W. Bush campaign, he helped write a relatively liberal immigration plan that included expanding work visas and speeding up the path to citizenship.
As a politician, he supports tort reform. As a private attorney, he argued before the New Mexico Supreme Court in favor of upholding a multimillion-dollar jury award against a nursing home for personal injury.
When questions about wrongful conviction on Death Row have come up, candidate Cruz has said, “I trust the criminal-justice system.” But when a client was wrongfully convicted, attorney Cruz signed his name to a brief declaring, “Public confidence in the integrity of the justice system is shaken.”
My favorite example of this is his 2009 brief written for the Texas Retired Teachers Association in favor of using stimulus money to give every retired teacher in Texas $500. The same Ted Cruz who would later criticize “big-government stimulus programs” argued that these checks “will directly impact the [Texas] economy...and will directly further the greater purpose of economic recovery for America.” He might as well have added, “Thanks, Obama!”
The puzzle of Ted Cruz is that such a smart man-and he’s certainly that-would not say half the things he says, but maybe this is next-generation leadership for a country that reads at a 7th-grade level. Maybe what America deserves is a politician whose brilliance is wholly encapsulated in its ability to find its market niche, to win the crowd over, to get the gold star.
An intellect prized for virtuosity seeks only its own glory. Cruz is saying what some Republican primary voters want to hear, and he’s saying it with skill. Whether he’s saying it with any conviction seems, in the final analysis, to be entirely beside the point. Give the man a gold star, and let’s move on.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford