How fitting that Senator Ted Cruz’s 21-hour anti-Obamacare speech on the Senate floor in Washington, D.C., happened to coincide with the opening of the U.N. General Assembly and the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. Rarely is the distance separating the caste that rules our world from its few, heavily despised critics so literal.
At the midpoint of the Acela corridor, heads of state, foreign ministers, and assorted luminaries from around the world gathered to toast themselves, make new friends, snub the president of the United States, and recycle platitudes on climate change, gun control, global poverty, the health care cost curve, and the Global South, all while clogging Midtown traffic, occupying posh hotels, fooling gullible media personalities, and enjoying the best of Manhattan’s entertainment, nightlife, culture, and cuisine.
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At the other end of the tracks the freshman conservative from Texas stood on the floor of the Senate and spoke for close to a day in an effort to deny money to President Barack Obama’s chief legacy—a misbegotten and unpopular law whose unintended consequences are already being felt in labor and insurance markets. Digressive, flamboyant, ideological, earnest, theatrical, self-promotional, at times touching and at other times goofy, Cruz deserved applause for his commitment and, at least, for his stamina. He established himself as the leader of the anti-Obamacare forces, forced the Democrats to defend their misbegotten law, and pulled the public discourse rightward. And while one might disagree with his strategy—neither Cruz nor his supporters have fully answered, in my view, the question of what they will do after this plan fails—one cannot help admiring the boldness and tenacity with which Cruz pursues his goal.
But that’s just me. Many other people, reasonable people, Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, and liberals, have been more than able to resist Cruz’s charms, such as they are. And their resistance has been so visceral, so virulent, so out of proportion to the reaction to earlier marathon floor speeches and filibusters that explanations seem necessary.
The justifiable Republican fear that a government shutdown could upset the political equilibrium of the 2014 elections is one reason that anonymous GOP aides and on-the-record GOP senators have opposed Cruz. And the justifiable Democratic frustration at having continually to defend and boost an unpopular and glitchy program is why the party’s leadership, from the president to Chuck Schumer, stands athwart all Republican attempts to delay or alter or defund or repeal the "law of the land."
What is not easily explained is the reaction to Cruz the man. Normally the media love filibusters, real or virtual. A few months ago in Texas a Democratic state senator named Wendy Davis filibustered a pro-life bill and received rapturous coverage, including articles dedicated to her footwear. But her filibuster ultimately led nowhere: Gov. Rick Perry simply called a special session of the legislature where the abortion restrictions passed over Davis’ objections.
Earlier this year Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) led a 13-hour filibuster to challenge administration policy on drone use. The attention he received, and the kudos from anti-drone activists, secured his place at the forefront of potential GOP presidential candidates. The only denunciations of Paul I can remember came from Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) who, it should be noted, later denounced Cruz.
At least McCain and Graham are consistent. Reading liberal blogs, and even some conservative ones, in the aftermath of the Cruz speech, one encountered post after post making the most Jesuitical distinctions between Davis’ filibuster, Paul’s filibuster, and Cruz’s filibuster, all so a particular author could claim higher intellectual and moral status than the senator from Texas. The intellectual contortions seemed painful to me.
In 2010, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) delivered a predictable, 8-hour jeremiad in protest against tax cuts, banking, and capitalism, his remarks were treated with kid gloves by the press, packaged and sold as a book, and championed on liberal blogs. "It’s just nice to see someone taking a stand for the view that upper-income households don’t need a tax-cut," wrote one particularly mindless blogger. Take a guess where that blogger stands on Cruz.
The criticism to which Cruz has been subjected is unlike anything in recent memory. He has been likened to Joe McCarthy, condescended to by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), called a "wacko-bird" by McCain, a "schoolyard bully" by Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.), a kamikaze pilot by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and generally described as an anarchist, a nihilist, inhuman, and inhumane. The left-wing ThinkProgress blog, operated by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, posted a hilarious item the other day that, in stating the obvious, captured perfectly the elite attitude toward Cruz: "Nation’s Top Newspapers Bury Ted Cruz." What a surprise! Coming soon on ThinkProgress: "Sky is blue."
The emotions generated by Cruz are of a degree not normally found in debate. The closest parallel is the reception of liberals and moderate Republicans to Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination in 2008. On the surface Cruz and Palin could not be more different: he a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer, she a small-town mayor and Alaska governor whose record, let us recall, was nowhere as conservative as her later television persona. But the two are now allies—Palin endorsed Cruz in his primary last year—in the populist conservative wing of the Republican Party.
That wing of the party is much smaller than one might assume based on reading the newspapers and magazines, watching television, and listening to radio. Populists are the minority of a minority, in the U.S. Senate in particular. Funny, that this minority persuasion arouses such ire from the writers and producers and politicians at the top of the bipartisan food chain.
What makes the populists the object of such ridicule and spite is their refusal to bow to the consensus. Democracies love consensus—to a large degree democracies cannot function without it. But the premises of the American consensus today, whether a Democrat or a Republican holds them, are liberal. You have heard them before: the status of illegal immigrants must be made legal, so-called austerity harms the economy, governments must do something to forestall climate change, free trade is all benefits without costs, economic integration with China is a net-plus, diversity is a compelling state interest, health insurance is a right, abortion on demand is a right, Islamophobia is a bigger worry than Islamism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of Mideast turmoil, and at the end of the day human beings across the world, no matter their nation or religion or culture, are basically alike.
This is the consensus that shapes our assumptions about the world, our notions of what is proper political behavior and what is not, our idea of what is worthwhile and possible. This is the consensus that says Obamacare is a settled issue, that says a government shutdown would be a Biblical disaster.
Whether particular aspects of the consensus are right or wrong matters less than that they are held by as many people as possible. That is where the Tea Party enters the picture, for its view of the world is in many ways the very opposite of what one might hear at the U.N. General Assembly, and at the Clinton Global Initiative, and at establishment outlets in Washington. Challenge the consensus, disrupt expectations, introduce a little anarchy into the world, and you threaten the power of those who forge the consensus and benefit from it. You challenge the power of the caste.
The fact that Cruz is a product of elite institutions only makes his challenge more potent. Nothing quite annoys liberals more than an Ivy League conservative, especially when that conservative has populist tendencies. What a hypocrite, the liberals say. How can an Ivy Leaguer spout such nonsense? Doesn’t he understand he’s a member of the elite? Doesn’t he know better?
What the liberals miss is that membership in the caste is defined not by profession or resume but by ways of seeing and manners of thinking, by one’s willingness to repeat the party lines that establish one’s social position, by the degree to which one submits to convention, to the crowd. If Ted Cruz annoys and unsettles the cronies and oligarchs and bureaucrats and managers and navel-gazers assembled in New York City this week, and their servants in Washington, well, good for him. He refuses to submit to the consensus without a fight. He is a rebel without a caste.