Cruz Stuck to the Script. Beto Stuck it to Cruz. Which Tactic Will Work?

O’Rourke finally got aggressive. Cruz stubbornly stuck to The Strategy.

Beto O'Rourke arrives for a walk through prior to facing U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in debate in San Antonio.
Beto O'Rourke arrives for a walk through prior to facing U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in debate in San Antonio. Tom Reel/The San Antonio Express-News via AP, Pool

In the second (and likely last) debate between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke, liberals lived vicariously as benevolent Beto finally lashed out at Ted Cruz — one of the most reviled politicians on the right — with a bevy of righteous attacks.

As Cruz’s lead grows, at least according to some polls, many of O’Rourke’s supporters begged him to get more aggressive in attacking Cruz.

He certainly delivered on that front Tuesday night. O’Rourke attacked Cruz as all talk and no action, a subaltern to the man who insulted his family and the living embodiment of Trump’s nickname for him — Lyin’ Ted. O’Rourke accused Cruz of running on fear, and said he’s beholden to right-wing extremists and corporate PACs. Oh, and he doesn’t care about Texans.

At the beginning of the debate, one of the moderators asked Cruz, who has long denied the science behind global climate change, whether companies like Exxon (which has finally and reluctantly admitted that climate change is, in fact, a thing) were mistaken. Cruz borrowed a climate-denial truism that’s used to dodge the reality that humans are heating up the planet, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels. “Of course, the climate is changing,” Cruz said. “Climate has been changing since the dawn of time.”  He then casually pivoted to O’Rourke’s vote against a congressional resolution opposing President Obama’s efforts to tax gasoline to fund clean energy investments.

O’Rourke pounced. “Senator Cruz is not going to be honest with you. He’s gonna make up positions or votes that I’ve never held or have ever taken. He’s dishonest. It’s why the president called him ‘Lyin’ Ted’ and it’s why the nickname stuck — because it’s true.”

Cruz chuckled and took a sip of water. The exchange set the tone for the rest of the debate.

For his part, Cruz largely stuck to his campaign strategy. He quipped that Beto’s pollsters had clearly told him to go on the attack, then proceeded to blast O’Rourke as the harbinger of a deranged and angry left that encourages protesters to bang on the doors of the Supreme Court and run him and his wife out of a fancy restaurant in Washington, D.C. He doubled down on the image he tried to cast of Beto in the first debate, an open-borders radical who wants to give socialized health care to everyone by bankrupting Medicare… a socialized health care program.

Meanwhile, Cruz cast himself as the bulwark against radical Democrats like O’Rourke who want to turn the next two years into a “partisan circus of impeachment” and grind the gears of Republican progress to a standstill. Somewhat boldly, given his entire career, Cruz insisted that he was the candidate of hope, progress and a return to decency and civility. As O’Rourke pointed out, it was a bit odd to see Cruz — whose political career was forged in obstructionism so extreme that his own GOP colleagues openly bashed him — warning of the dangers of a “partisan circus” with a straight face.

Cruz was at his most passionate when talking about his strong advocacy for reducing budget deficits and national debt. He grew even more passionate when talking about how — in order to rein in out-of-control gubmint spending — politicians need to get serious about shredding the safety net.

It’s clear that Cruz is confident that running as a hard-right zealot is enough to win in Texas. He doubled down on every base-igniting point — from lamenting the vicious “smears” against Brett Kavanaugh to playing up O’Rourke’s “extreme” positions on abortion.

The debate was supposed to include some discussion of foreign policy — but we got nothing of the sort. Instead, it ended with a request from the moderators for the candidates to tell an apolitical story about themselves. It was a gimme. Cruz sighed, and talked about how hard it is to be a politician while raising two young daughters. He recalled how he committed to help coach his daughter’s basketball team — and then, in an attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Texas voters and convince them he is indeed a real person, he somberly recalled how he missed one of her games because he was in Washington, D.C., casting a decisive vote to deliver massive tax cuts to corporate America and the rich.

To be clear, Republicans have largely avoided talking about the tax cuts on the campaign trail because they’ve become so politically toxic — Mitch McConnell even admitted that the GOP had lost the messaging battle. But here Cruz is, so confident in Texas’s anti-taxation fervor, that he plays up the vote as the pinnacle of familial sacrifice.

Cruz’s political consigliere Jeff Roe insists that Beto’s aggressiveness represents the final throes of a candidate facing inevitable defeat: “When an unconventional candidate becomes conventional, that’s typically when they get split like a cantaloupe, and I think that’s what we’ll see.”

It’s true: O’Rourke went on the offensive — and for many long-suffering Texas progressives, it felt good to see him give Cruz his comeuppance. And maybe it also made good campaign sense. As much as O’Rourke’s positive qualities resonate with voters, Cruz’s smarminess, extreme partisanship and Trump bootlicking are a big reason why so many are motivated to go to the polls. O’Rourke did his part to remind voters of that.

Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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Published at 9:09 am CST
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