I wanted to follow up on my debate take from last night. As I said, following the debate, the Trump festival and the video out of Oregon all together made it hard for me to follow as closely as I’d have liked or take it in as coherently as I’d wish. And it seems the initial reaction from commentators is that Cruz did worse than I suggested. My general sense is that it wasn’t that Cruz got attacked or that the attacks on him did any particular damage. It was that the spotlight was inherently bad for him.
Here’s what I mean.
The structure of the night – framed by Trump’s absence – made Cruz the star of the event, the center of gravity, the literal and figurative center of attention. And he just seemed awkward and unlikable.
He’s also getting knocked a lot for saying he was going to leave if he was asked any more “mean questions.” My read then and now was that this was actually just a botched Trump joke. But he said it in a kind of off-key way. So the sarcasm only half registered. It kinda sounded like he meant it. And Rubio jumped in to drive that feel home at Cruz’s expense. But it wasn’t just that moment. This whole portion of the debate – which lasted for maybe the first 45 minutes or so – had the feeling of walking into a conversation at a party that’s just very awkward and uncomfortable – because it’s Ted Cruz holding court and pontificating. And you want to leave. Again, it’s not that the attacks were particularly biting or damaging. It’s just that you saw Cruz up close. And he’s not pleasant to be around.
That was my sense of it last night. And his clash with Chris Wallace seemed like a similar memorably grating moment. But I also thought I remembered a back and forth where Cruz tried to tell Wallace what a debate actually was. It was a classic Cruz moment – arrogant, ill-considered, unaware. But I couldn’t find it in the transcript when I tried to find it.
That was until this morning when I went over the transcript and video with Katherine Krueger. Suddenly I realized that these different moving parts of weaseldom fit together in a way I didn’t quite get at the time. It was either better or worse than I remembered, depending on how you want to look at it.
It turns out I was right about what we’ll call the debatesplain moment, where Cruz starts to lecture Chris Wallace on what a debate actually is. It just wasn’t at the moment I remembered. It came a bit later. And remember, there’s important context here: Ted Cruz was a champion college debater, something he has always been extremely proud of. So it’s all very in character and exactly the sort of unself-aware, preening move that makes people not like the guy. When I finally understood the order of events in the Q&A it all came together for me as a comprehensible whole, a sort of epiphany upon piecing together the magna carta of Ted Cruz weaseldom.
Let’s go to the text, shall we?
At a bit under a half hour in you have Cruz’s tussle with Chris Wallace. He wants to follow up on Christie’s answer to a question. But it quickly descends into an argument about whether he gets to respond to Christie or gets his own crack at Wallace’s original question. Cruz is typically aggressive and oleaginous and Wallace quickly gets frustrated. “I know you like to argue …” Wallace just flat shuts Cruz down and moves on to ask his question.
Wallace: Governor Bush —
Cruz: Chris, I was mentioned in that question.
Wallace: I don’t think your name was mentioned.
Cruz: Your question said —
Cruz: I think — the question was about
Wallace: It’s not my question you get a chance to respond to, it’s his answer.
Cruz: Your question was —
Wallace: You don’t get 30 seconds — sir, I know you like to argue about the rules, but we’re going to conduct the debate. Governor Bush, here’s a question…
You can try to manhandle a debate moderator and have it work or not work and come off well or not well. Cruz blows it on both counts. As I noted yesterday, if you pull it off, this kind of shtick can work in political terms even if you seem rude or not totally appealing doing it. If you fail, you look weak in addition to looking rude and unappealing.
So Bush gets his question and answer and now Wallace comes back to Cruz, “Senator Cruz, now you get a chance to respond.”
He says it with perhaps a half peace-offering chuckle.
This is when Cruz launches into his “mean questions” preen. But there’s this little nugget in there, noted in bold.
Cruz: Chris, I would note that the last four questions have been Rand, please attack Ted, Jeb, please attack Ted …” [ crowd boos ] Let me just say this …
Wallace: It is a debate, sir.
Cruz: No, a debate is a policy issue … but I will say this, gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage. [ Applause ] Chris, the most important determination any voter is going to make in this election is who is best prepared to be commander in chief. Who has the experience, who has the knowledge, who has the judgment, who has the clarity, vision, and strength to keep this country safe. Ate is all about. I would suggest let’s stay focused on those issues rather than just attacks directed at each other.
Wallace: I think the questions were about issues. But senator Rubio —
So hidden there in plain site, amidst the “mean questions” stumble, is this perfect Cruz moment. Cruz has already gotten under Wallace’s skin and pissed him off by lecturing him on the debates rules. And he’s gotten smacked down for it. Now he’s launching into the ‘everybody’s paying attention to me’ phase of his “mean questions” fumble. So now he’s criticizing the moderator’s questions after already pissing him off with his stupid argument. So Wallace pops in with a little, “It’s a debate, sir.” In other words, ‘Don’t be a whiner. Debates have attacks.’
But God bless his heart, Cruz can’t let it go!
Remember, Cruz’s whole college life was based around being a debate champ. So he stops his himself midway to explain to Wallace what a debate is! What a great idea!
He must not literally mean that a debate “is” a policy issue but that it is “about policy issues” or a “discussion of policy issues.” In any case, the meaning is clear enough. And, of course, after Cruz is done Wallace comes back in to say ‘Shut up, it was about issues.’
Just a general overall rule: don’t lecture the debate moderator about what a debate is. Even if you almost won the national college debate championship or whatever it is twenty-five years ago. Maybe especially then. These are just the kinds of things that you either realize or you don’t.
This is the thing about “mean questions”. He wasn’t really saying he was going to walk off the stage, that was a bungled Trump joke. But it came in this period of the debate – let’s call it the ‘uncomfortable, let’s leave’ phase – when it’s just one moderately grating strut from Cruz after another. The tussle with Wallace, the preening ‘ahh everyone is attacking me’, the Wallace debatesplain, the failed Trump joke. To the extent the debate went badly for Cruz it was because of this – and the fact that the first half of the debate had a steady stream of this kind of crap from Cruz.
As I said last night, if you have the very acquired taste of liking Ted Cruz, I think toward the end he did fairly well. Again, if you have that condition. But with Ted Cruz there’s the difference between seeing him trash talking President Obama on Fox News versus actually knowing Ted Cruz and spending some time around him. people in the latter category, even a lot of Republicans, conservatives, Tea Partiers even, just really don’t like the guy. And I think the first half of the debate gave people a bit of that feel.
And with that, here’s the video …