The thing to remember when watching a Texas Sen. Ted Cruz deliver a speech, whether on the Senate floor or on the presidential campaign trail, is that he is a debater at heart. That is to say, his whole style of argument and delivery is meant less to reveal actual truth than to convince listeners that he is right. And if hyperbole and misdirection help the cause, so be it.
It’s not unlike watching a skilled magician perform on stage. You know he’s going to try to fool you, and part of the fun is trying to figure out how he’s doing it.
His persuasive talents were on full display Thursday morning, in a speech on national security and defense policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. At one point, Cruz used some rhetorical trickery to suggest that statements from the Obama administration – particularly from Attorney General Loretta Lynch – might have prevented law enforcement officials from breaking up the terror plot that led to the massacre of 14 innocents in San Bernardino last week by a husband and wife who pledged allegiance to the terror group ISIS.
Cruz hit most of his usual talking points in the speech, blasting the Obama administration for failing to refer to ISIS and ISIS-inspired terrorists as “radical Islamic terrorists,” promising more bombing of the terror group and a plan to “destroy” it. He hammered the administration for what he described as a desire to strip away Americans’ Second Amendment rights by regulating firearms, for what he called a failed effort to destroy ISIS in the Middle East, and more.
In a campaign dominated by a candidate who doesn’t do nuance particularly well, Cruz was willing to delve into some surprisingly complex subject matter. For example, he argued that the promotion of Democracy abroad ought not to be the goal of the United States in all cases, and said that the country must be ready to work with foreign leaders who don’t share its respect for democratic ideals if doing so can advance U.S. interests.
Cruz also said that he doesn’t believe that the U.S. has a “side” in the ongoing civil war in Syria, essentially calling for the U.S. to sit out a conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced.
Cruz the stage magician, however, made an appearance in his discussion of the Obama administration’s treatment of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S.
Attorney General Lynch recently spoke to a Muslim group in suburban Washington and addressed their concerns about increasingly virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S., saying that the Justice Department would “take action” when such speech “edges toward violence.”
Some reacted with alarm, suggesting that Lynch was saying that the Justice Department would prosecute constitutionally protected speech. On Monday she clarified her position, saying "We always have a concern when we see the rhetoric rising against any particular group in America, that it might inspire others to violent action — and that violent action is what we would have to deal with.”
Nonetheless, by Thursday, Cruz was warning that the nation may be “facing the weaponization of one of our own government agencies, deployed not to protect Americans but to force them to submit to the Obama administration’s code of what is and is not acceptable speech.”
He continued, “Attorney General Lynch said that’s what she was most afraid of, that we might exercise our First Amendment rights and speak out about this threat. How about having an attorney general who is focused on keeping our children safe rather than muzzling the free speech rights of Americans?”
Watch carefully, because here’s where Cruz makes the jump from garden-variety hyperbole to sneaky misdirection.
“In fact, we’re already seeing the consequences of fear stifling speech,” he said ominously. Bringing up the San Bernardino attacks again, he said, “The neighbors reportedly found their behavior odd. But until now they didn’t say anything to law enforcement because they were scared they would be accused of racial profiling.
“Imagine how different San Bernardino would have played out if the fear and political correctness had not silenced the neighbors. If a phone call had been made. If law enforcement had investigated, if they had discovered the abundant evidence of radicalization and intent to wage jihad, and if these two had been apprehended before they went on a murderous spree.
“Loretta Lynch’s ban on what she calls anti-Muslim rhetoric is already producing its chilling effect, and it’s preventing Americans from taking basic steps to protect ourselves.”
Now here’s the thing. Everything Cruz quoted Lynch as saying, she said after the San Bernardino attacks. Even if she had issued a “ban” on anti-Muslim rhetoric -- which she didn’t -- it couldn’t have affected the thinking of the killers’ neighbors prior to the attack, absent the existence of a time machine. However, by the time any of that registered with the more critical members of the audience, Cruz had moved along to his next point, his unsupported charge against Lynch firmly planted in his listeners’ memories.
You don’t have to like Ted Cruz, and comments to the media by his former colleagues and classmates suggest that an awful lot of people don’t. But give credit where it’s due: He’s a skilled showman.