Point: Ted Cruz, The Queen of Summertime

Recently the FX Network hosted an event,  “Every Simpsons Ever,” during which they – surprise – broadcast every episode of ‘The Simpsons,’ ever. It was a glorious idea, not least because it brought back memories of when the show was so much sharper. Some of those older Simpsons episodes have been lingering in the old brainpan for the last 20 years or so.

A line from one episode in particular always stuck with me. It’s the one where Lisa gets a pool during a heat wave, and becomes popular (There’s also a spoof of Rear Window, but that’s not important for our purposes here – still, great episode). The pool becomes the neighborhood hangout, much to the chagrin of Lisa’s rival: Martin Prince. Ah, Martin Prince – that intelligent, overeager, impolitic, annoying nerd. Martin’s family builds a larger pool, and he exults.

“Ah, my plan has come to fruition! Soon I’ll be queen of summertime – uh, king, KING!”

As it happens, Martin’s campaign for popularity works too well. One too many of his new “friends” jumps into his pool, destroying it and his newfound status. As the episode closes he is left alone, pantsless, singing wistfully about the summer wind. I’ve always associated that image with hubris and the ephemeral nature of friendship.

Speaking of the hubris of an irredeemable nerd, let us consider Senator Ted Cruz for a moment. I think I speak for a sizable (though silent) portion of the Republican Party when I say that Ted Cruz is the Martin Prince of the conservative movement. The similarities are compelling.

He’s remarkably intelligent, yet seemingly incapable of using that intelligence to work toward attainable political goals – aside from his own embiggenning. With Democratic control of the White House and Senate, the options for conservative gains are rather severely limited. Yet he demagogues when he should be silent, taunting his opponents (and his own party) to take their best shot. For this and other reasons he is disliked by his colleagues.

A further similarity: his ambition to higher office is tattooed on his forehead. Recognizing such transparent, Martin Prince-like longing for status is a bit like recognizing pornography – hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Hiding your ruthless ambition is a virtue of politicians, and Cruz lacks it. His shortsighted approach to politics – on full display during the shutdown – may ultimately lead him to much the same end as Mr. Prince and his pool.

A cursory glance shows that he is hardly being abandoned, however. He has many supporters. I’ve run afoul of more than one by writing of the Senator in less than enthusiastic tones of approval. Cruz has been a divisive figure on the right since he arrived in the Senate. He seems to relish dispensing boob bait for the bubbas, and shows no sign of changing that behavior any time soon. The government shutdown was his biggest political faceplant to date, so much so that in January he was blaming the Democrats for it instead of taking credit for his principled stand. Yet his support holds.

He generated a fair bit of ink recently by using a conference of Middle Eastern Christians as an opportunity to grandstand about Israel. Call it what you will, but unless you call it cloddish pandering to his real audience – Evangelical Christians he hopes will vaunt him to the Presidency – then you will be calling it the wrong thing. It was crass political theater, designed to benefit one person: Ted Cruz. In light of the unimaginable suffering of Middle Eastern Christians, his actions were especially unsavory. Subsequent attempts to paint the attendees as supporters of Hamas or Hezbollah were confusing and simplistic – though not as low as the use of scare quotes around the word “Christian” by some benighted publications. Whatever Cruz’s actual motivations for attending, he utterly failed to understand the people gathered in front of him and squandered a rare opportunity.

I somehow doubt this will hamstring his 2016 hopes. Here I wish he was a bit more like the eternally unpopular Mr. Prince, whose exuberant excess is swiftly punished by public opinion in the hulking form of Nelson Muntz. However, as is distressingly common with such personalities on the right, Cruz has amassed a fandom for whom he can do no wrong. It’s not quite a Palinesque cult of personality, but with time and the right conditions it could become so.

Typically, our interactions go something like this:

Me: “Gosh, Ted Cruz did this and it was annoying and awful.”

CruzFan: “Say there, chum! You don’t know what you’re talking about. Ted is speaking truth to power/irritating all the right people/the hero we need right now/not an establishment RINO squish.”

Me: “Oh, but don’t you think he’s just a bit personally detestable with this transparent posturing and demagoguery – and anyway, does this actually help advance conservatism… or just his own career?”

Often, at this stage they deploy the following formulation:

CruzFan: “Well, it’s obvious you don’t actually know Ted Cruz. I’ve met him and he’s the real deal. He’s a patriot etc. etc. and if you’d ever met him you wouldn’t try to criticize him like that, you ignoramus.”

At which point I generally put my hands out in front of me and back away from the Internet, slowly. How does one respond to being told you can’t have an opinion on a public figure unless you’ve met him? Lately, I’ve been asking the CruzFan whether that standard should not also inform their criticism of Barack Obama.

What I’m trying to say, as prickishly as possible, is that an effort to insulate a politician from the simple fact of being widely disliked (and therefore compromised as a vessel for advancing policy goals) does neither politician nor movement any favors. Cruz needs to know that he’s a Martin Prince.

Senator Cruz is ultimately not the vehicle for advancing conservative thought that some think him to be. He’s not a hero who will defeat Obamacare. He’s not even a particularly good politician (typically, one needs to be somewhat likable for that). He may really believe his actions are in the best interest of the country, but from my perspective he has cynically exploited the divide between Republican leadership and the conservative base for his own benefit. If we take the Senate in 2014 it probably won’t be because of Ted Cruz. If we lose the White House in 2016 he may well have a lot to do with it.

But for Cruz, will that matter? Oh, to be the queen of summertime…if only for a few moments. Hang those who talk of less.