The 2016 Stump Speeches: Ted Cruz

On March 23 at Liberty University in Virginia, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas became the first major Republican to announce his presidential candidacy. As I explained in the introduction to this series, I don’t think the mainstream media takes candidate stump speeches seriously enough: In them, a candidate presents a vision of what leadership America needs at the present moment, and why he or she is the person to provide it. That vision is typically a combination of truth and fantasy, both about himself/herself and about America, but it is a telling and instructive combination all the same.

Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes below are from the Washington Post transcript. (I’ve left out the crowd reactions.)

Significance of the site. “To come to the world’s largest Christian university [1] is a statement in and of itself,” said student government president Quincy Thompson. “I think he was very clear in his commitment to Christ.”

Liberty University was founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell and is still headed by his son, Jerry Jr. It describes its mission as “training champions for Christ“. Falwell Sr. can be regarded as a founder of the Theocrat wing of the Republican Party — I discuss the four Republican factions here and here — so by announcing his candidacy at Liberty, Cruz is identifying himself as a Theocrat. (He has since doubled down on that with his first campaign ad.)

Cruz’ speech is one of Liberty’s three-times-a-week Convocations, and he is introduced by President Falwell. (I haven’t found what Falwell said.) Attendance at Convocations is mandatory for students, which explains why you can see a few Rand Paul t-shirts in the crowd. In general, the audience is respectful but not enthusiastic, except when Cruz pledges his support to Israel. (Christian Theocrats are major supporters of Israel, for reasons largely having to do with end times prophecies.)

Outline. The overall theme of Cruz’s 31-minute speech is “re-igniting the promise of America”. It falls into three parts: The first ten minutes are about Cruz and his family, the next 13 make a contrast between where he thinks America is and where he wants to take it, and the final eight explain why the difficult things he wants to do are possible: a combination of people power (“The power of the American people when we rise up and stand for liberty knows no bounds.”) and divine assistance (“God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet.”).

Family bio. Telling your story is a standard part of a stump speech, and if your theme is “re-igniting the promise of America”, it helps if your family’s story illustrates the promise of America. This isn’t a conservative or liberal thing: In many ways Cruz’ use of his father’s Cuban-immigrant struggle reminds me of Mike Dukakis’ use of his father’s Greek-immigrant struggle.

It’s particularly important for Cruz, though, because his father is going to be an issue in the campaign: Rafael Cruz is pastor of a Purifying Fire franchise in Carrollton, Texas. He is a popular religious-right speaker on his own, and regularly says the kinds of things that liberals imagine conservatives think but don’t say. That relationship will be a plus for Cruz as long as he’s only facing far-right audiences, but in a general election his Dad problem will dwarf Barack Obama’s Jeremiah Wright problem.

As Ted tells it, his parents’ story has two themes: How in America two people can start with nothing and put their son in the Senate, and how Jesus Christ can transform a family. He also tries to pick up some working-women cred through his mother’s success in a male-dominated field (computer programming). [2]

Rafael arrived from Cuba at 18, after rebelling against the corrupt dictator Batista and then getting disillusioned by Castro. He worked his way through the University of Texas washing dishes (something you could do back in the days when state universities were heavily subsidized). Ted conveniently skips Rafael’s failed first marriage, but does tell how he abandoned his second wife when Ted was three. That was when Rafael found Jesus.

And God transformed his heart. And he drove to the airport, he bought a plane ticket, and he flew back to be with my mother and me. There are people who wonder if faith is real. I can tell you, in my family there’s not a second of doubt, because were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ … I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the household.

Ted’s wife was the child of white missionaries to Africa. In telling the story of her business success, he focuses on her childhood cake-baking business, and manages not to say the words “Goldman Sachs”.

Similarly, he leaves out some things when talking about himself

heading off to school over a thousand miles away from home, in a place where he knew nobody, where he was alone and scared, and his parents going through bankruptcy meant there was no financial support at home, so at the age of 17, he went to get two jobs to help pay his way through school. He took over $100,000 in school loans, loans I suspect a lot of ya’ll can relate to, loans that I’ll point out I just paid off a few years ago.

That’s got to be the strangest way I’ve ever heard someone say he went to Princeton and then got his law degree at Harvard. [3]

He draws this segment to a close by saying: “These are all of our stories.” In other words, the American dream is “to come to America with nothing, and to achieve anything.” We all share that dream, but the Cruz family embodies it.

The threat. Having shown us how the promise of America has been fulfilled for him and his family, Cruz transitions to the second part of the speech by introducing the idea that the promise of America is threatened, and may not be available for the students in the audience unless they fight for it.

For so many Americans the promise of America seems more and more distant. … So many fear that that promise is today unattainable.

The promise of America has to be “re-ignited” if it’s going to be available to this generation.

What’s interesting here is how Left and Right are telling the same story with different villains. In Cruz’ version, the promise of America has been corrupted by over-reaching government and the loss of the Christian values the country was founded on. In the liberal version, the promise of America has been stolen by the 1%; they have climbed the ladder of success and pulled it up behind them. A candidate who could combine these stories would really have something; but I don’t see that coming from the husband of a Goldman Sachs executive — or from Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton.

Cruz uses war imagery to imagine how this might turn around. He begins with Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.” [4]

Today millions of young people are scared, worried about the future, worried about what the future will hold. Imagine millions of young people coming together and standing together, saying “we will stand for liberty.”

and in the closing invites the students “to join a grassroots army”. His implicit message is that one way Liberty students can be “champions for Christ” is to be champions for Ted Cruz.

Imagine how things could be rather than how they are. The “imagine” in the previous quote is the start of a litany of the form “Instead of X, imagine Y.”

Imagine, instead of economic stagnation, booming economic growth. … Instead of small businesses going out of business in record numbers, imagine small businesses growing and prospering.

Again, this kind of stuff will play well in the Republican primaries, but I can imagine an attack-dog Democratic VP candidate (Al Franken would deliver the line best) countering with: “Instead of the slow but steady growth we’ve had under a centrist Democratic president, imagine the economy falling completely off a cliff the way it did the last time we had a conservative Republican president.”

That’s going to be the general-election challenge of any Republican candidate: You can talk a good game about “booming economic growth”, but when the details come out, what are you proposing other than a return to Bushism? In large part, that is what sunk Romney. He wanted to project an image as an economic turn-around specialist, but he didn’t have any credible proposals to back it up. Lower taxes? Less regulation? How is that different from what failed so disastrously under Bush?

And “small businesses going out of business in record numbers”? False.

Sometimes there are policies behind Cruz’ litany, if you know how to interpret.

Imagine innovation thriving on the Internet as government regulators and tax collectors are kept at bay and more and more opportunity is created.

If wasn’t until the second time I listened to the speech that I realized he was talking about his opposition to net neutrality. The idea that the FCC’s endorsement of net neutrality will have a side-effect of raising taxes is speculative at best, but is accepted as gospel on the right. And the belief that letting Comcast and Verizon dominate the internet will make innovation “thrive” and create “opportunity” … well, that’s just crazy.

Cruz repeats several other baseless conservative fantasies:

Instead of a tax code that crushes innovation, that imposes burdens on families struggling to make ends met, imagine a simple flat tax that lets every American fill out his or her taxes on a postcard. Imagine abolishing the IRS.

Every proposed flat tax that collects the same revenue as the current system does so by increasing taxes on “families struggling to make ends meet”. It has to, because the whole point of flattening the tax is so that rich people can pay less.

Similarly, the flatness of a tax has nothing to do with how complicated tax returns are. [5] The complicated part of the income tax is figuring out what your income is after deductions, not what tax rate you pay on it. Having a flat tax is not going to help you compute the basis price on your investments, or what part of your small-business revenue is actually income. (How are you going to do that on a postcard?) And if you want to simplify by getting rid of deductions, you can do that without flattening the tax. (If you want to make deduction-cutting revenue-neutral, lower all the tax rates by equal percentages.) The point of a flat tax is not simplicity or anything other than shifting the tax burden from the rich to the rest of us.

And “abolishing the IRS” means what exactly? That the government is just going to take our word for what our income is? The only way to abolish the IRS is to abolish the income tax, which would have to be replaced by something more regressive, like a national sales tax.

Instead of the lawlessness and the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty, imagine a president that finally, finally, finally secures the borders.

What kind of police state would we need to “secure the border”? Reagan couldn’t do it. Bush couldn’t do it. Even Nazi Germany never managed to secure its borders completely. Also: about half our undocumented immigrants come in legally, but overstay their visas. Nothing we can do on the border will fix that.

And imagine a legal immigration system that welcomes and celebrates those who come to achieve the American dream.

All of them? Isn’t that exactly what a lot of conservatives want to prevent? How many immigrants does Cruz imagine letting in each year? Won’t they “steal our jobs“?

And some Cruz’ proposals are just nonsense:

Imagine repealing every word of Common Core.

As many people have pointed out, Common Core is not a law, so it can’t be repealed. Pretty much everything Cruz says about Common Core is disconnected from reality. Vox explains:

If Cruz really wanted to get rid of Common Core, he could run the Obama administration’s play in reverse: create his own version of Race to the Top, with financial incentives for states to toss out the Common Core standards and develop their own based on what local authorities think students should learn. But that’s just another form of federal interference — and Cruz wants the federal government out of the education standards business entirely.

Cruz continues:

every single child, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of wealth or ZIP Code, every child in America has the right to a quality education.

But if there are no national standards, what does “quality education” mean? And if there’s no definition, what is Cruz’ assertion of every child’s rights worth?

And of course, no Ted Cruz speech would be complete without trashing ObamaCare.

Instead of the joblessness, instead of the millions forced into part-time work, instead of the millions who’ve lost their health insurance, lost their doctors, have faced skyrocketing health insurance premiums, imagine in 2017 a new president signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare.

It will be interesting to see how long the Right can stay in the alternate universe where ObamaCare is a horrible failure. An ever-larger percentage of the electorate either gets insurance through ObamaCare or knows someone who does, so the made-up horror stories can’t cut it forever, as Cathy McMorris Rodgers found out.

Imagine health care reform that keeps government out of the way between you and your doctor and that makes health insurance personal and portable and affordable.

You need imagination to see the Republican alternative to ObamaCare, because in the real world there isn’t one. I’ll bet Cruz will go as long as he can without offering any more details than what you see above.

But the portions of the Imagine litany aimed at the Religious Right ring true.

Instead of a federal government that wages an assault on our religious liberty, that goes after Hobby Lobby, that goes after the Little Sisters of the Poor, that goes after Liberty University, imagine a federal government that stands for the First Amendment rights of every American.

Instead of a federal government that works to undermine our values, imagine a federal government that works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage.

Instead of a government that works to undermine our Second Amendment rights, that seeks to ban our ammunition imagine a federal government that protects the right to keep and bear arms of all law-abiding Americans.

I’ve got nothing cynical to say about any of that. [6] He means it.

God’s help. One theme of Cruz’ career is that conservatives don’t need to compromise, they just need to fight. That principle and Cruz’ leadership was how we wound up with the government shutdown of 2013.

So he closes his speech by explaining why he believes — in spite of sad experience — that compromise is unnecessary and his vision is possible. He recalls a number of crisis points in American history [7], and then concludes:

From the dawn of this country, at every stage America has enjoyed God’s providential blessing. Over and over again, when we face impossible odds, the American people rose to the challenge.

So Theocrats shouldn’t seek a compromise candidate that might have a better chance of winning. Ted Cruz should be their first choice, and with their help and God’s he will become president.

Is it working? The first new poll out says it is: Cruz has gone from 5% support to 16%, within striking distance of the leaders Scott Walker (20%) and Jeb Bush (17%). God may not be throwing his weight into the scale, but the Theocrats are.

[1] Liberty has nearly 14,000 students on its campus and another 100,000 online. I’m not sure exactly how it justifies its claim to be “the largest Christian university in the world”, which Cruz repeats in his speech.

Just in the U.S., Catholic DePaul has over 30,000 students on campus. Maybe Liberty has more online students, or maybe they think Catholic universities are not really Christian. Certainly you don’t have to be Christian to attend DePaul, while Liberty’s application requires an essay on “How will your personal faith and beliefs allow you to contribute to Liberty’s mission to develop Christ-centered leaders?”

One good background source is the book The Unlikely Disciple, by a liberal Brown student who goes undercover at Liberty.

[2] Since Ted was born while the family was living in Canada, he gets his American citizenship and his right to run for president from his mother, who was born in Delaware. Some on the left want to make an issue out of this, since there is at least more substance to it than to the pure-fantasy Birther objections to President Obama’s legitimacy — which Rafael Cruz promoted. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Birthers tear down democracy by injecting bullshit into the public discourse. Those of us who want to uphold democracy can’t use their tactics.

[3] In context, this talking-about-himself-in-the-third person is not as weird as it sounds out of context. Rhetorically, he has set it up well.

[4] That choice of founding father is a dog whistle: To most of us, Patrick Henry is just another founder. But he was a Theocrat in the Virginia of his day, and clashed often with secularists like Jefferson and Madison. Liberty students probably know this.

[5] I just finished doing my own taxes. If we’d had only one tax rate in 2014, all that would have changed were the numbers in the Tax Tables. Everything else in my tax return (and yours too, I believe) would have been exactly the same.

[6] Well, one thing. The “ban our ammunition” line is about a proposal to ban armor-piercing bullets, whose main civilian application is in killing cops. The Obama administration dropped that proposal after the NRA threw a fit.

This shows how far you have to stretch if you want to claim that Obama is a threat to gun owners: You have to point to a moderate, sensible proposal that he didn’t follow through on anyway.

[7] Leaving out the Civil War, interestingly. I wonder if Cruz believes God’s side won that war.

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  • blotzphoto  On April 6, 2015 at 10:07 am

    Excellent analysis. I did have a fanboy heart attack at the idea of an Al Franken vice presidential run. In many ways I could see it working, although much like the case Elizabeth Warren I don’t see the wisdom of removing an almost guaranteed Senate seat for 4-8 years of a position with limited influence. He would be the perfect Joe Biden replacement, unless we can convince Joe to take the #2 job for another 4 years?

  • Ed Phillips  On April 6, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Ted Cruz including border closure in his platform does indeed suggest he and his father have no problem pulling the ladder up behind themselves and their success. Given the odds against Ted Cruz being elected president on a base of religious voters, I can’t help but point out that his quest also has aspects of Jacob wrestling with the angel who descended from heaven on a ladder. Jacob lost that fight, and was given a rock for a pillow before the angel departed.

    The unwillingness to compromise on issues, though, is more troubling to me philosophically. After all, isn’t one definition of politics “the art of compromise”? Theocracy is a materialistic philosophy, despite it’s suggestion of spiritual guidance and, perhaps, justice. It is absolutism in that what is simply is, and what is not, is not. There is no need for compromise in a land of absolute authority, just rules that are obeyed or not. But where to find the incorruptible, benevolent ruler? History suggests there may only be one, and it’s uncertain at this time whether citizenship rules might disqualify that candidate…

  • Josh  On April 7, 2015 at 10:44 am

    “[I]magine a federal government that stands for the First Amendment rights of every American.”

    Even atheists? Even Muslims? I wonder what Ted has to say about that.

  • rbshreve2  On February 15, 2016 at 10:49 am

    Reblogged this on Richmond Shreve.

  • Raja Muthu  On April 20, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Excellent, thoughtful analysis and thank you! Among the republicans, Ted Cruz has been the most slippery demagogue. By now, you must have clearly seen through his shtick of running circles around unprepared, hapless reporters asking dumb questions.

    I wonder if you could write an article (or articles) highlighting what questions you would ask if you were a debate moderator, that would help clarify the exact stance of Cruz to the public.

  • chrishn1  On June 20, 2018 at 3:40 am

    Perfectly started fresh protrude:


  • […] the speeches with me and add your comments. I’m going to start later today with Ted Cruz’s Liberty University speech, and I plan to update this post throughout the year as more candidates announce and more stump […]

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