Ted Cruz looks like a sad dog with wet eyes, but he's got one big, big advantage in the GOP debates: He's a great debater. He is literally enshrined in the Princeton Debate Panel's Hall of Fame for being both the "National Championship Top Speaker" and the "North American Debating Championship Top Speaker" in 1992. According to a June 2014 New Yorker profile, Cruz specialized in parliamentary debate, in which debaters are given a topic and forced to generate their arguments on the spot. This requires being able to pull facts and figures seemingly out of your ass and being able to work the angles of any given position.
That might not seem like it would apply to presidential debates. After all, candidates pick the issues and the positions they want to argue (Mike Huckabee's is social security; Ben Carson's is the pyramids). But Cruz has a way of looking at arguments that seems uniquely tailored to the current political arena. He's not looking to score points, he wants to bend the entire discussion so that his position is self-evidently correct, no matter how odd it might be.
His secret, he told New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin, is he believes the "essential battle is the meta-battle of framing the narrative." He started this practice as at Princeton—his college best friend David Panton recalled to the New York Times, "Ted was not about responding to anything. He would reframe the whole debate"—and by the time he was arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court as Texas's Solicitor General, he'd perfected it. He told Toobin that when arguing before the Justices, he concentrated on articulating "those two sentences that come out of the judge's mouth" when "the judge goes home and speaks to his or her grandchild, who's in kindergarten, and the child says, 'Paw-Paw, what did you do today?'"
Cruz's rhetorical acumen was on full display at last night's Republican debate, in which the 44-year-old Senator from Texas reiterated his desire to wipe out the IRS, let ailing banks die on the vine rather than bailing them out, and return to the gold standard. He used the term "philosopher-king" twice and referenced something called "The Dead Horse Act" once. Just because he seems like a candidate out of the 19th century doesn't mean he should be underestimated—the guy's got an uncanny ability to make insane stuff seem reasonable.
Take an exchange about illegal immigration. All of the Republican candidates are vehemently against migrants crossing the US border illegally, but Cruz, whose father is Cuban and who was born in Canada, stressed that it was "a very personal economic issue," one that elites would see very differently if their jobs were being taken by immigrants. He continued, "for those of us who believe people ought to come to this country legally, and we should enforce the law, we're tired of being told it's anti-immigrant. It's offensive." In a few quick words, he moved the debate away from whether increased immigration helps or hurts the economy—it's about the elites versus the regular folks whose jobs are threatened. To disagree with Cruz means denying the experiences and perspective of blue-collar Americans.
He employed this trick again when arguing with Ohio Governor John Kasich about the issue of bailing out large banks, positioning himself as a warrior for small business and Kasich as a steward of the rich. Cruz backed Kasich into a corner, asking, "Why would you then bail out rich Wall Street banks, but not Main Street, not mom and pop?" Who doesn't love Main Street? Who is hateful enough to hate mom and pop? By the end, the audience was actually booing Kasich.
In Cruz's hands seemingly contradictory policies such as shrinking the government and putting a fighter jet in every backyard seem like the most logical and reasonable positions in the world. "You think defending this nation is expensive, try not defending it," he said, before used car salesmannishly offering, "you can do that, and pay for it!" From there, he started talking about how sugar subsidies were bullshit. Every politician throws out facts and figures like they're tossing rice at a wedding, but only Cruz seems to be able make them sing on the way down.
As polished as he can sound, he still stumbles: He managed to commit one of the most flagrant gaffes of the evening, pledging to cut the Department of Commerce twice in one sentence when listing the five government agencies he'd eliminate. And when the Washington Post broke the numbers down, the paper found that Cruz's proposed cuts, in conjunction with his tax plan, would put the federal government $278 billion in debt. (Not that anyone who would vote for Cruz would ever read the Post.)
Whether it's threatening to shut the government down for the second time in three years or getting a guy who once made blood-splattered T-shirts that say "Mohammed is a homo" to design a portion of his campaign merch, Cruz is almost on the offensive. He stands up for his beliefs with the conviction of a man on a crusade. Those beliefs may make it hard for him to win a general election—if he doesn't waver in his positions from the primary, he'd be further to the right than any GOP nominee in recent memory—but if there's anyone who can win an argument with that kind of ammunition, it would be a champion debater.
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