Old Boys

Squishes Step Aside: Ted Cruz and Chris Christie’s Old-School Manliness

As the GOP becomes increasingly a guy’s party, the Texas senator and Jersey governor are bringing the unapologetic swagger, writes Michelle Cottle.

Two Republican heavy hitters are bringing manly back to their machismo-starved party.

In terms of public image, it’s hard to think of two Republican pols less alike than Ted Cruz and Chris Christie. Since his Beltway arrival this winter, the Texas senator—laboring tirelessly to cast himself as the party’s loudest, proudest, most uncompromising ideologue—has rocketed past more senior colleagues to become the GOPer that non-right-wingers love to bash. A couple hundred miles north, meanwhile, the equally in-your-face New Jersey governor reigns as the Republican non-wingers love to praise: a bellicose poster boy for pragmatic governance.

Still, Cruz and Christie possess a key similarity: an abundance of old-school manliness. Sure, one is a twangy Texan with that shit-kicking, boot-wearing thing going on (despite being a double-ivied, cosmopolitan kind of guy). The other is a Jersey bruiser, with a (much-discussed) physique reminiscent of Tony Soprano after a doughnut bender. But both are delivering a booster shot of testosterone to the GOP in a way few have managed to pull off of late.

I’m not talking here about the complex embodiment of modern masculinity or what it means to be the platonic ideal of a man. Today’s politics have no place for such high-minded analysis. No, this is about which conservative leaders ooze a stereotypical, gut-level manliness. Swagger. That hard-to-define-but-easy-to-recognize machismo that no amount of therapy, media training, or psycho-pharmaceuticals can impart.

This essence of manliness is central to the GOP’s mythology. The daddy party cherishes its self-image as the party of toughness, of self-reliance, of up-by-the-bootstraps fortitude. Sure, Cruz recently irked fellow Senate Republicans by dissing them as “squishes” on gun control. But let’s be honest: how many Republican pols have whipped up a crowd at CPAC or a Lincoln Day dinner or a nominating convention by mocking the effete, elite liberal girly men (and women) looking to transform America into a nation of mewling, helpless bed-wetters?

Despite the centrality of this image to the GOP, however, precious few of its high-profile players now are apt salesmen for the manly brand. Former senator Fred Thompson was perhaps the last to wear the mantle well—and was, on the basis of that alone, considered a serious presidential contender for about 15 minutes.

As for the current team ... Mitt Romney: too much of a doofus. Paul Ryan: ditto, despite the washboard abs. Eric Cantor: too twitchy (manly men do not visibly vibrate with nervous energy). Marco Rubio: too boyish. Jeb Bush: too soft and measured. With his retro Mad Men groove, John Boehner has the potential to be a Don Draper kind of manly man, but he’s too darn weepy.

Indeed, arguably the “manliest” Republican of recent years is Sarah Palin, the bulk of whose appeal came from her gun-toting Mama Grizzly persona. Well aware of this, Palin clearly delights in and polishes her tough-gal image to a high sheen (except on those occasions when she’s busy playing the victim).

But seeing as how the GOP is increasingly a guy's party, both demographically and culturally, it really should have at least a couple of men out there who can walk the walk and talk the talk. In this way, both Cruz and Christie seem fitting, and reasonably honest, ambassadors. Forget a sensitive GOP, a nurturing GOP, a warm-and-fuzzy, women-wooing GOP. Here are two unapologetic men’s men who will give it to you straight (whatever “it” may be), even if that means hurting your wee feelings.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many folks regard the manly appeal these pols are peddling as a bad thing. The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta, for instance, put Cruz center stage this week in her grim look at how the “politics of masculinity” deforms debate on everything from gun control to Keynesian economics.

But, in politics, the heart wants what it wants. And if one accepts that somewhere deep in the GOP psyche lingers an attraction to strutting alpha males, the question then turns to who will address this longing. Whether you prefer Cruz or Christie likely depends on your political and cultural leanings. Say this for both men, however: neither champions the aggressive anti-intellectualism of some of their conservative compadres, like Palin, Santorum, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. So whatever their political priorities, perhaps they will help to dispel the prevailing notion (which so vexes Republicans like Bobby Jindal and Jeb Bush) that GOP manliness goes hand in hand with proud ignorance.

That’s something even the squishes and girly men among us would have cause to celebrate.