Ted Cruz opens his event in Milford, N.H., with a bang.
“For the record, Tom Brady was framed!” the Texas senator declares to cheers for the New England Patriots quarterback, who had a little trouble last year with deflated footballs. “I’m not willing to pander on much, but Tom Brady was framed, and I have it on good authority that Hillary Clinton was responsible.”
More cheers and applause. “Why else do you think she destroyed her e-mails?”
Ba-da-boom. In one pithy joke, Senator Cruz manages both to pander and take a dig at the Democratic frontrunner, and the crowd at the Pasta Loft loves it.
Inside the Beltway, Cruz may be one of official Washington’s least favorite Republicans – on both sides of the aisle. It was Cruz, for example, who prodded his fellow legislators toward the government shutdown of 2013, in a quixotic effort to defund Obamacare. In the Senate, he has few friends. But out on the campaign trail, Cruz is rather well-liked – at least among Republican voters.
Two recent polls, in fact, show him to be the most popular candidate of the entire GOP presidential field. Gallup has Cruz at 61 percent favorable; ABC News/Washington Post has him rising to 60 percent.
Maybe it’s because Cruz can be entertaining. He tells jokes, he does impressions, he plays off voters’ questions. He was, after all, once an aspiring actor. Last June, he “auditioned” for “The Simpsons,” doing an excellent Montgomery Burns, Ned Flanders, and even Lisa and Homer Simpson. Last November, in an impressive performance, Cruz voiced all the parts of a scene from “The Princess Bride” for WMUR-TV in New Hampshire.
The core of Cruz’s campaign message centers on his deep conservatism, his religious faith, and near-apocalyptic warnings about the future of the country. But he leavens his stump speech with bits of humor. Democrats would surely find some of it distasteful if they attended his events, but they’re not his audience. And besides, political correctness is out – as with the joke he tells at every stop about a Texas farmer.
“You know, I’m reminded of a few years ago, I was out in West Texas, and I asked folks there, I said, ‘What’s the difference between regulators and locusts?’ ” Cruz begins.
“They said, ‘Well, the thing is, you can’t use pesticide on the regulators.’ And this old West Texas farmer, he leaned back and said, ‘You wanna bet?’ “ Cruz finishes, adding a Texas drawl to the farmer’s voice.
At another point, he invokes the memory and Boston accent of President Kennedy, promising to defend the Constitution “with vigah!” Later, the Kennedy accent comes back with the recitation of this famous Kennedy quote, borrowed from George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they ahhh, and ask why. I dream things that nevah were, and ask, why not?”
Cruz crosses the line, in Democrats’ view, when he asserts that “JFK would be a Republican today,” saying that Kennedy campaigned on tax cuts, limiting government, and defeating the Soviet communists. “He would be tarred and feathered by the modern Democratic Party,” Cruz says. In a recent piece in Politico, Kennedy’s grandson calls the notion “absurd.”
But no matter. Cruz is not one to shy away from provocation. And as a Princeton debate champion and Harvard-trained lawyer, he deploys words with the precision of a surgeon and the quickness of a stand-up comedian. When a woman at an event Monday in Washington, N.H., asks the senator about paid family leave, revealing that she has four young children – three girls, then a boy – Cruz goes for a light touch.
“Oh, that poor boy!” he laughs. “He is doomed. I am the baby brother with two older sisters, so I understand exactly. It will toughen him up.”
Cruz’s answer to the woman’s question – that “free stuff” from the government isn’t the answer – doesn’t satisfy her, according to an interview with ThinkProgress. But again, no matter. Others give Cruz points for empathy, as he acknowledges the challenge of juggling work and family.
Cruz also reminds his audiences of the old joke that “politics is Hollywood for ugly people,” earning the senator a laugh as if they’re hearing it for the first time. “My wife says I resemble that remark,” he adds. Self-deprecating humor is often a good idea for politicians, who can come across as self-important. Inside the Beltway, Cruz certainly has that image.
But in this day and age, with reality TV star Donald Trump leading the Republican field, show-biz skills are increasingly a requirement for presidential candidates. Voters want to be entertained. Or at least they want a little levity mixed in with all the gloom and doom some are peddling about the future of the country.