Ted Cruz Is Donald Trump With a Harvard Degree

Is Ted Cruz as big a jerk as Donald Trump? We’ll be finding out soon enough.

12.03.15 6:00 AM ET

When Donald Trump begins his inevitable fade once the presidential primary season kicks into high gear, the smart money is on Ted Cruz to pick up the billionaire blowhard’s supporters. Indeed, polls out of Iowa show the senator effectively neck and neck with Trump in the Hawkeye State.

Which raises an interesting question: Is Cruz every bit as big a jerk as The Donald? The senator is a more serious candidate, both in that he’s actually held high office and, as a lawyer who served as Texas’ state solicitor general, has actually read the Constitution.

But like Trump, whom he refused to criticize even gently until recently, Cruz is given to cheap and crazy culture-war talk that alienates him from socially tolerant and fiscally responsible people who otherwise might be willing to consider voting for him.

When he’s not taking a bold stance against unisex bathrooms and other worldly abominations, Cruz is stoking fears about the enormous problem of creeping Sharia law in America, musing that “the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats,” and counting (but not naming!) the dozen Harvard law professors he claims “believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.” 

This sort of culture war crap can’t be helping him with libertarians and centrists who generally dislike big government but aren’t necessarily ready to sign on to Cruz’s assertion that “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this country.”

Throw in his willingness to appear with Kevin Swanson, a pastor who advocates the death penalty for gays, and his staunch support of anti-gay-marriage county clerk Kim Davis, surely the only government employee conservatives have lauded for refusing to do her job, and Cruz’s reflexive culture-war posturing will sink him among all but the most desperate GOP loyalists.

Cruz’s response to last week’s murderous rampage at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic is representative both of his exclusionary, off-putting world view and his grating, too-smart-for-the-room personality (there are reasons why his unfavorables are consistently higher than his favorables). When asked by a reporter from the progressive Texas Tribune about alleged shooter Robert Dear supposedly being motivated by a belief that the abortion provider sold “baby parts,” Cruz at first wisely responded, “We don’t fully know the motivations of this deranged individual.”

But he then immediately floated the specious (and definitively refuted idea that “we know that [Dear] was a man who registered to vote as a woman” and was, according to some reports, a “transgendered leftist activist.” According to his spokesman, Cruz was simply making the point that “reporters were trying to get a full reaction to a raw story where little is confirmed and a lot of misinformation is being reported.”

Puh-lease. Cruz could have buttoned his lip after the first, incontrovertibly true part of his response, but that would have missed an opportunity to incantate three magic words—transgendered leftist activist—that cast an absolute spell on right-wing social cons. And having his flack argue that Cruz was simply engaging in much-needed, extemporaneous media criticism is exactly the sort of jesuitical bullshit that adds insult to ignominy.

In fact, that sort of hyper-careful parsing is the stock in trade for Cruz, whom we are never allowed to forget is a champeen debater as well as a graduate of two Ivy League schools (as with UPenn grad Trump, the Ivy League somehow functions for Cruz and his fans as a locus both of ultimate evil and supreme credentialing for “outsiders”). As he was starting his presidential campaign, Cruz rebutted attacks on his short, low-achievement stint in national office by comparing himself to Barack Obama. The current president, he said, had been a do-nothing “back bencher” during his cup of coffee in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, while Cruz “had more legislation pass the Senate than all but a handful of Republicans.”

As Dave Weigel noted at the time,“The language is key here. Cruz did not say he had more legislation pass into law than any Republican.” No, what Cruz did was lard up bills with generally dead-on-arrival amendments that might have been voted on but ultimately went nowhere. Just one of his amendments had become law when Weigel was writing earlier this year.

Dig up Cruz’s explanations for his self-evidently opportunistic flip-flops on topics such as birthright citizenship (in 2011, he was indifferent to it but now feels we must “absolutely” get rid of it) and trade-promotion authority (he voted against it just weeks after publishing a Wall Street Journal op-ed supporting it) and you’ll find that he has exquisitely argued and fully unconvincing reasons for why his prevarications make perfect sense.

And let’s not forget his hissy fit after the Supreme Court effectively recognized gay marriage. Cruz pushed legislation ending the longstanding reciprocal recognition among states of other jurisdictions’ marriages and called for “judicial retention elections” for SCOTUS justices. Last year, the self-proclaimed federalist even had the balls to tell Reason TV that it “should even concern libertarians” that Barack Obama had directed the Department of Justice not to prosecute marijuana users in states that had legalized pot.

Sensing momentum, Cruz has taken not just to attacking Trump lately (“I don’t believe he’s gonna be the nominee”) but his Tea Party compatriot and rival Marco Rubio. Rubio is soft on Mexicans, says Cruz, who may himself have some lurking issues with the most-xenophobic voters. And don’t you know that Rubio is a neocon, too, and is thus partly to blame for Benghazi? Never mind that Cruz relentlessly hits on Obama for being a weak commander in chief and that he co-sponsored with Rubio an unfunded plan to increase defense spending by $190 billion over the next couple of years.

As he pushes his way into serious contention, expect more of this sort of ankle biting from Cruz—and an increase in culture-war whooping as well. As I noted here in 2013, “Cruz is the favorite son of an older, whiter America.” These days, he’s even peddling a false story that a large part of the reason that Mitt Romney lost in 2012 was because white Protestant evangelicals stayed home (in fact, such voters were overrepresented at the polls).

Only a few years ago, after Mitt Romney’s resounding defeat at the hands of a very beatable Barack Obama, the Republican Party at least flirted with the idea of reaching out to younger, more diverse, more socially tolerant voters in a bid to drag the party into the 21st century before it was too late. With Cruz, you get almost the exact opposite. His anti-immigrant bona fides are second only to Trump’s, and his religiosity (“If the body of Christ rises up as one and votes our values, we can turn this country around,” he told Iowa voters last month) is second to none. “When we choose the mushy middle, we lose,” says Cruz.

But in fact, as The Economist notes, “no Republican has won the White House without hefty moderate support.” And that’s the group that Cruz is doing everything he can to alienate.