Ryan Evon/Odessa American/AP
Senator Ted Cruz speaks to members of the media about how he thinks the country needs to move forward economically after his meeting with the Odessa Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 at the chamber offices in Odessa, Texas. Cruz walked out of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday when Cuba’s Raúl Castro began to speak.

Ted Cruz walks out on Castro at Mandela memorial. Grandstanding?

Democrats complained that GOP Sen. Ted Cruz was attempting to upstage South Africa’s planned proceedings for Nelson Mandela. But some other aspects of US politics might have been factors.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas walked out of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday when Cuba’s Raúl Castro began to speak.

That is what Senator Cruz’s office says occurred, in any case. “Senator Cruz very much hopes that Castro learns the lessons of Nelson Mandela,” said Sean Rushton, his communications director, according to the National Review. “For decades, Castro has wrongly imprisoned and tortured countless innocents. Just as Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, Castro should finally release his political prisoners; he should hold free elections, and once and for all set the Cuban people free.”

Was this behavior appropriate? After all, the day was supposed to be a celebration of Mr. Mandela’s life, not a forum for debating US-Cuban relations. Democrats complained that Cruz was attempting to upstage South Africa’s planned proceedings.

Yes, President Obama shook hands with Mr. Castro when the two crossed paths in the VIP seating area. But that was simple courtesy, according to the White House, given that the encounter was inevitable. Cruz’s walkout, in contrast, was an act of active protest that in the view of Democrats was not necessary.

“The lengths Ted Cruz went to make the life – and passing – of Nelson Mandela about Ted Cruz is really astounding,” tweeted Michael Czin, current Democratic Party and former Obama campaign spokesman.

Hmm. We’d say that’s going a bit far. Cruz’s behavior was not intended for the worldwide audience of the memorial so much as for Cruz’s own supporters, wouldn’t you agree?

And there are a few aspects of US politics that might provide some context for Cruz’s stroll.

Cuba is still an issue. Fifty-three years since Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, its fate remains a hot button for its giant neighbor to the North. It’s not just something that sways an important Cuban-American constituency in South Florida. Cuba also remains the pea under Washington’s mattress. The Castro brothers have survived the efforts of 11 US presidents to push them from power. They’re a bit of unfinished business from the cold war, a way for Republicans to telegraph that they’re the party that Americans generally rate as stronger on national security in polls.

Cuba unites the GOP. And Fidel and Raúl Castro unite the GOP. You’ll notice that Republicans of all party factions complained about Mr. Obama’s handshake, not just hard-right conservatives. Sen. John McCain of Arizona equated the moment to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler. Senator McCain has also called Cruz a “wacko bird.”

So if you’re running for the 2016 GOP nomination – and who thinks Cruz isn’t? – then the walkout is smart positioning for the primaries to come.

Cruz is not a cartoon. Look, Cruz’s push this fall to shut down the government in an effort to defund Obamacare was a disaster for the national GOP’s image. Lots of establishment Republicans dislike him personally and don’t trust him, which is not good for his presidential aspirations.

But it would be a mistake for Democrats to treat Cruz as a caricature tea party conservative. His rhetorical skills are far superior to, say, those of Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. His academic achievements early in life were considerable. He was just announced as one of the finalists for Time's "Person of the Year."

Democratic lawyer and crisis consultant Lanny Davis makes that point in The Huffington Post. Democrats, he says, should remember that many in the party dismissed Ronald Reagan as an actor whose extreme views rendered him unelectable.

“So fellow Democrats: Let’s debate the issues with Ted Cruz and win the election on the issues. If we think it’s better to engage in personal attacks and ridicule, and not take Cruz seriously, think again,” writes Mr. Davis.

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