Ted Cruz vs. Ellen Page and Jimmy Carter

by Benjamin Studebaker

Ted Cruz has had a busy week. First the Texan senator and republican presidential candidate got in an argument about LGBT rights and religious freedom with actress Ellen Page. Then he launched an awkwardly timed attack on the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. I’m not here to scold Cruz for being impolite. What I would like to do is talk about the substantive arguments Cruz makes and the way he makes them. So consider this post something of a doubleheader.

Ted Cruz vs. Ellen Page

At the Iowa state fair, Ellen Page (most famous for her role in Junotook a crack at Cruz over his support for religious freedom restoration acts–the laws that allow people to deny service or employment to LGBTs on religious grounds. The whole thing is on video:

Ted Cruz was a legendary Ivy League college debater. He knows all the tricks and was on form here. So let’s dissect it a bit.

Page begins with the core liberal argument, that permitting religious people to deny service on orientation grounds is no different from permitting them to deny service on racial grounds:

A lot of people particularly in like, the LGBT community are worried, just cuz in the past during the segregation era or when women were trying to, you know, get the right to vote, religious liberty was also used to defend and justify that discrimination. So a lot of people in the LGBT community just have this fear due to the past examples that that’s what’s gonna happen. So I was wondering if you could speak to that.

Cruz starts with a dodge, pointing out that many religious people played significant roles in the civil rights movement:

Well you know, it’s interesting that you bring up that example. If you actually look at the history in this country of defeating slavery, if you look at the history of defeating Jim Crow, it’s leaders in the church that played a critical role. Reverend Martin Luther King stood up against…you know you read the letter from the Birmingham jail where he calls upon the conscious of Christians to stand up–

Page doesn’t take the bait:

But a lot of religious people have also used the Bible to defend segregation, to defend slavery, so…so I’m just saying that, you know, I just think that religious freedom is so important, that it’s so crucial for all religions. LGBT people are worried that they will be directly discriminated against because of the bill, and–

Cruz then tries to flip the debate, claiming that religious people are the ones being persecuted:

But we don’t have a right to force anyone to abandon their faith. Tonight at the rally we’re gonna to have people from all over the country who have lived according to their faith and have been persecuted for it. And, and, and it is one of the foundational commitments of who we are as Americans to respect diversity–to respect the right of every American to live according to his or her conscience, his or her faith.

Page resists:

Sure, but for example still in a lot of states, LGBT people can be fired for just being gay or for just being trans. That’s totally legal–I mean how do you feel about that? That doesn’t sound very American to me.

Cruz and Page then go back and forth a bit, with Cruz reasserting the importance of talking about religious freedom and Page reasserting the importance of talking about LGBT rights. Cruz tells an anecdote about some Christians who were driven out of business over their refusal to provide services to LGBTs. Eventually Cruz comes up with an inventive tactic–he suggests that gay people should be permitted to deny service to religious people as well:

Imagine, hypothetically, you had a gay florist and imagine two evangelical Christians wanted to get married and the gay florist decided, ‘You know what, I disagree with your faith, I don’t want to provide flowers.’

Page doesn’t fall for that:

I would say they should provide the flowers.

Cruz presses:

And I would say the gay florist has every right to say, if I disagree with your faith and don’t want to participate…you know what? There are lots of other people to buy flowers from. Just like, we don’t have a right to force a Jewish Rabbi to conduct a Christian wedding ceremony. We don’t have a right to force a Muslim Imam to conduct a Jewish wedding ceremony. We are a country that respects pluralism and diversity and there is this liberal intolerance that says that anyone that dares follow a Biblical teaching of marriage, that is the union of one man and one woman must be persecuted, must be fined and must be driven out of business.

Page continues to resist Cruz’s efforts to make the religious objectors the victims:

I disagree, I think there’s more intolerance for LGBT people who have constantly been persecuted in this country. It used to be illegal, they were thrown in jail, and we’ve come a really really long way…

At this point, Cruz completely derails the argument:

On the left you hear complete silence about Iran hanging homosexuals, and yet the Obama administration is sending over $100 billion to a regime that murders homosexuals.

This is a red herring–Cruz is now shifting the debate from religious freedom laws to US foreign policy to show that he’s the one who really cares the most about LGBT rights. It’s a completely invalid form of argument, but it’s nonetheless a classic college debate tactic because it throws people off. Understandably, Page has no idea what to do with it, pointing out that LGBTs are discriminated against all over the world.

Cruz immediately spots the weakness and attacks:

Does that trouble you at all, that you draw a moral equivalence between Christians in Jamaica and radical Islamic terrorists and ISIS that are beheading children?…They’re not morally equivalent. Murder is murder is murder, and it is wrong, and it is wrong across the board. Why does the Obama administration not stand against this?

Page gives Cruz what he wants:

I don’t know, I’d love to talk to Obama about it.

Like most college debate kids, Cruz takes any concession as a full concession. He immediately declares victory:

Then we’re agreed!

At no point does Cruz address Page’s core claim–that permitting people to deny service or employment to LGBTs on religious grounds is not morally different from permitting them to deny service or employment to blacks on the same grounds. Indeed, by arguing that LGBTs should be permitted to deny services to religious people on the basis of their convictions, Cruz implicitly takes the position that any person should be permitted to deny service or employment to any other person as long as they have some deeply felt conviction that this is right. This position is madcap and would excuse permitting service and employment discrimination against blacks. Cruz can argue that it ought to go both ways, but in practice this sort of policy favors big groups at the expense of small groups and is intensely discriminatory. But it’s hard to pick up on this in real time, and I certainly don’t blame Page for not quite nailing Cruz to the wall over it. Debate kids can be very slippery–they run away from arguments and points that they aren’t comfortable dealing with and try to steer arguments toward safer ground. This is because for a debate kid, the argument is not about persuading the other person, it’s about convincingly performing victory. In debate competitions, you don’t win by persuading the opponent, you win by convincing the judge that you won. You do this by never giving an inch, by presenting superficial weak spots in your opponents case as if they were decisive flaws, by constantly trying to shift the terms and language of the debate to favor you. Cruz is not good at winning arguments, but he is very good at making it appear that he has won arguments.

Donald Trump is a grand master of this tactic–whenever anyone attacks Trump, Trump brushes the attack aside as if it means nothing to him and immediately mocks his adversary. It makes no difference if the attack was poignant or substantively valid. Trump acts as if the attacks were clearly ridiculous so convincingly that his supporters believe that this is really true. In this respect Trump and Cruz are kindred spirits. The core difference is that Cruz looks more polished and serious because Cruz targets enemies’ arguments while Trump directly attacks his enemies as people, levying schoolyard insults at them (“lightweight”, “loser”, “highly overrated”, “dummy”, etc.). They both have effective stylistic strategies for projecting victory even though neither one ever really prevails on substance.

Ted Cruz vs. Jimmy Carter

Cruz is getting negative attention for his Carter remarks because Carter was recently diagnosed with cancer, but there are so many effective ways to go after the substance of what Cruz said. Here are Cruz’s Carter remarks:

I think where we are today is very, very much like the late 1970s. I think the parallels between this administration and the Carter administration are uncanny: same failed domestic policies, same misery, stagnation and malaise, same feckless and naïve foreign policy. In fact, the exact same countries—Russia and Iran—openly laughing and mocking at the president of the United States. Why is it that that analogy gives me so much hope and encouragement? We know how that story ended. All across this country, millions of men and women rose up and became the Reagan revolution.

To start, the late 1970s have nothing at all in common with our current experience. When right wing politicians talk about the “late 1970s”, what they are really referencing is the stagflation we saw during that period. I wrote a full post on how that came about. To summarize, the OPEC oil embargo and the Iranian Revolution caused oil prices to rise dramatically during the 70’s, pushing up the US inflation rate. Here’s oil:

Here’s inflation:

The first big jump in the oil price is in 1973, precisely when inflation begins to take off. The second big oil jump is in 1979, when inflation launches itself into overdrive again.

The United States doesn’t have anything like this problem at all–the US inflation rate is below target right now and hasn’t surpassed 4% at any point during the Obama administration:

There are other important differences. Contrary to popular belief, average annual inflation-adjusted economic growth during the Carter years was actually pretty good. At over 3%, Carter posted better growth figures than both Bushes and Obama. Since 1976, only Reagan and Clinton have posted better growth numbers than Carter, and Carter is not far behind them. If we look at all post-WWII presidents, Carter’s economic record looks pretty average–he even beats out Eisenhower and Nixon:

The contemporary economy has problems, but they are very different from the kinds of problems Nixon, Ford, and Carter had in the 70’s. In the 70’s, oil prices damaged growth and pushed up inflation, creating the infamous “stagflation” conditions we hear so much about. Today, our growth rates are just really pathetic, and they have been pathetic since the year 2000 regardless of which party occupied the oval office. And inflation? If anything, we could use some more of that today.

On foreign policy, Cruz’s analogy is just as off-base. The 1970’s were dominated by the Cold War and the Soviet Union. Modern Russia is but a shadow of its former might and poses a far lesser threat to US security interests. If we look at the relative wealth share of the USSR and the USA, this becomes very clear.

During the Soviet era, the USSR peaked out at about 60% of the USA’s wealth. That looks something like this:

USSR Power at Peak

Today, Russia is far weaker:

Russian Power 2015

As for Iran? It has always been a pygmy power:

Iranian Power 1980

But today, it’s even weaker:

Iranian Power 2015

This is kid stuff. Ted Cruz is running for president, and he should know these things. He should be able to make arguments that are more appealing the more you know about an issue. Instead, he makes arguments that are more appealing the less you know, that rely on rhetorical flourishes and debate kid dodges. Many people believe that participating in high school or college debate makes you a better person in some respect or other. Cruz succeeded at the highest levels of the Ivy League college debate circuit, but all he seems to have learned is how to create the illusion of dominance, the facade of strength. Being a great debate kid doesn’t make you any smarter about politics or any better as a person. What it does do is make you a better manipulator. That’s all Cruz is–a manipulator, a creature of low cunning, entirely lacking in political wisdom.