Ted Cruz walk-off: cynical, or 'Sister Souljah moment'?

Ted Cruz was booed off the stage, after praising Israel at a meeting of Middle East Christians that included Palestinians. Was it a deliberate move to claim credit for standing up for Israel?

Tony Gutierrez/AP
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, smiles as he addresses attendees at the 2014 Red State Gathering, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas. Cruz was booed this week at a meeting of Middle East Christians.

Ted Cruz was booed this week at a meeting of Middle East Christians. Will that help or hurt him in the long run in US politics?

First, the background: the Republican Texas senator (and presumptive 2016 presidential contender) was addressing the In Defense of Christians organization, which focuses on persecuted Christian and minority sects in the Middle East. Near the end of his speech he brought up Israel, saying Christians have no greater ally.

Booing began. There were Palestinian Christians in the audience who don’t see Israel in a positive light, and they let Cruz know it.

Senator Cruz went on, saying, “Those who hate Israel hate America. Those who hate Jews hate Christians.” At that point the booing got louder. Cruz eventually left – there’s some debate as to whether he was forced off by the crowd reaction, or chose to leave in a huff. Or cloud of glory, depending on your view.

At first glance, this looks like a smart political move on Cruz’s part. Standing up for Israel is a pretty big deal to many grassroots conservatives. (OK, for many conservatives in general, really, as well those on the left who support Israel.)

Arab Christians are a much smaller political force in the United States. Also, there are some questions as to whether some of the other speakers at this conference have links to Hezbollah and/or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“How often do you hear about a national pol being booed offstage anywhere and think, ‘Wow, that’s a big political win for him?’ But it is,” writes Allahpundit at right-leaning Hot Air.

Cruz got to demonstrate support for Israel and look tough under pressure. That’s a win-win looking forward to the 2016 primaries, according to Allahpundit.

The analogy here is to Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah” moment. In 1992, then-candidate Clinton criticized Sister Souljah’s controversial rap lyrics at a speech in front of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. He got credit for standing up to perceived extremists in his own party.

But here’s the glitch for Cruz: Not all the reaction on the right has been positive. Cruz himself is something of an unpredictable force within the GOP, so some of the negative feelings probably come from establishment Republicans who feel that he’s trying to usurp their party.

Right-leaning New York Times commentator Ross Douthat described Cruz’s comments as “risible.” The Texas senator cynically stepped on the hopes of a beleaguered minority just so he could look like a big man, in Mr. Douthat’s view. It’s likely Cruz knew exactly what he was doing when he brought up Israel in front of the Middle East Christian crowd, according to the commentator.

“Eventually maybe Ted Cruz will do something in Washington that doesn’t give off a strong whiff of cynicism. But I’m not holding my breath,” tweeted Douthat yesterday.

Others accused Cruz of pandering to fundamentalist US Christians who do not believe that Maronites and other Middle East Christian religions are “real” Christians.

Middle East Christian groups have few friends and are indeed persecuted, writes Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in “The Week.” Many of them trace their heritage back to the founding of Christianity, yet now are facing extinction as the Middle East roils with sectarian turmoil.

 “Cruz tarred and attacked one of the most powerless and beleaguered minorities in the world, solely for personal political gain. He was speaking truth to the powerless. He was strong against the weak,” writes Mr. Gobry.

Meanwhile, the head of In Defense of Christians said that the booing of Cruz was the work of a small minority in the audience. In a statement issued on Thursday night, group president Toufic Baaklini also criticized Cruz for accusing some in the audience of being “consumed with hate,” and for leaving without finishing his talk.

“That was as unfortunate as the inappropriate reaction by a small number of attendees,” said Mr. Baaklini.

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