The Dallas Examiner
– POLITICAL ANALYSIS –
In their first Texas Senate debate at Southern Methodist University held Friday evening, Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke squared off on a range of hot-button issues from immigration and health care to Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh and Botham Jean.
In the debate that almost never was – the two campaigns had gone back and forth for months before settling on three one-hour debates – both candidates were prepared to articulate their take on Texas values.
Cruz, a shrewd and seasoned debater, was seeking to slow the Beto-mania that has been sweeping the state. Despite the fact that Texas has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988, Cruz and the GOP are rightfully concerned.
Recent polls have them running within single digits of each other. And against all odds, Cook Political Report put Texas in the Toss Up column.
O’Rourke, relying more on his raw charisma and inclusive message than his debate experience, hoped to raise his name recognition and draw a contrast between Cruz’s animus and his own more congenial style.
With the midterm elections just weeks away, the nation has its eyes on Texas, where the outcome could mean the difference between a Republican or Democratic Senate majority.
O’Rourke, who drew the first question, began with a call for Texans to “rewrite our immigration laws in our own image and to ensure that we begin by freeing DREAMers from the fear of deportation by making them U.S. citizens.”
“Senator Cruz has promised to deport each and every single DREAMer,” O’Rourke said.
In his signature style of boiling complicated arguments down to a simple point, Cruz stated his immigration views can be summed up in four words: “legal, good; illegal, bad.”
Cruz argued, “Americans are dreamers also,” and painted O’Rourke and his progressive policies as “out of step with Texas.”
“I’ll tell you about being out of step with Texas,” O’Rourke countered.
O’Rourke argued that building a wall “on someone’s farm, someone’s ranch, someone’s property, someone’s homestead, using the power of eminent domain to take their property at a time of record security and safety on the border” is what is truly out of step with Texas.
Cruz used the next question about the recent shooting of unarmed Black man, Botham Jean, to criticize O’Rourke for his calls to fire Amber Guyger, the Dallas officer who has already been charged with manslaughter.
He chastised O’Rourke for siding against the police, claiming that O’Rourke “described police officers as modern-day Jim Crow.”
Cruz then displayed some effective theatrics when he pointed out Officer Brian Graham in the audience.
“Officer Graham is standing there, his two kids, he took a bullet in the head protecting us and let me say right now I think it is offensive to call police officers modern-day Jim Crow. That is not Texas.”
That line received one of the biggest applauses of the night.
Immediately, O’Rourke refuted the claim and circled back to the original question.
“If African Americans represent 13 percent of the population in this country yet they represent one-third of those who are shot by law enforcement, we have something wrong,” O’Rourke answered. “If we have the largest prison population on the face of the planet and it is disproportionately comprised of people of color, we have something wrong in this country.”
As a follow-up, Cruz was asked if he agreed that police violence against unarmed African Americans is a problem. Cruz did not directly address the issue and instead pivoted into a discussion of police funerals and the 2016 shooting of Dallas police officers.
“I was here in Dallas when five police officers were gunned down because of irresponsible and hateful rhetoric,” Cruz said.
Cruz then chided O’Rourke for using a similar rhetoric.
“He’s stated for example, ‘White police officers are shooting unarmed African American children.’ The Washington Post fact-checked that claim and concluded congressman O’Rourke was wrong. But I’ll tell you something, that rhetoric does damage. That rhetoric divides us on race; it inflames hatred,” he said.
O’Rourke came back hard without resorting to calling him “Lyin’ Ted.”
“You just said something that I did not say and attributed it to me,” O’Rourke told Cruz. “This is your trick of the trade, to confuse and incite based on fear.”
Indeed, the quote fact-checked in The Washington Post came from the viral NowThis News video of O’Rourke commenting on the NFL protests during the national anthem.
“Black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement without accountability and without justice,” O’Rourke said.
The Washington Post concluded that it was all about how you interpreted the quote. Was he saying “unarmed Black children are being killed at a frightening level by police”? – false, or was he saying there are “frightening rates in which black men, teens and children are being killed in the United States, with some of those killings by police”? – true.
Due to this ambiguity, the congressman’s claim was given a “No Rating.”
On the issue of NFL players protesting during the national anthem, O’Rourke spoke passionately about the Civil Rights Movement in this country and reiterated his belief that “there’s nothing more American than” such peaceful, nonviolent protest.
Cruz responded by repeating a common GOP alt-history narrative in which modern-day Republicanism is the party of Lincoln and the Civil Rights Movement.
“One of the reasons that I’m a Republican is because civil rights legislation was passed with the overwhelming support of Republicans and indeed, the Dixiecrats who were imposing Jim Crow, the Dixiecrats who were beating those protesters, were Democrats and that’s one of the reasons I’m proud to be a member of the party of Lincoln.”
But in fact, one of the major causes for the breakup of party loyalties was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson is said to have told his aid Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Dixie in the time of Lincoln voted Democrat and fought for the Confederacy. Now those same former slave states overwhelmingly vote Republican – not because they had an ideological flip, but because the parties themselves flipped over time.
O’Rourke missed an opportunity to school the audience on this inaccuracy and essentially validated it by letting it slide.
Perhaps trying to avoid an accusatory back-and-forth over complicated U.S. history, O’Rourke responded, “Listen, I could care less about either party at this moment, at this deeply divided, highly polarized time in our history.”
Cruz then said that Martin Luther King Jr. would not have approved of the protests.
Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice King, refuted that claim on Twitter, inviting “Senator Cruz and all to read Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Personal Dignity and the War on Drugs
The integrity of both candidates was questioned during the debate.
Cruz was asked to address those who believe that, when it comes to Trump, he has lost his dignity. Trump famously dubbed Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” during the 2016 election and yet Cruz has become friendly with Trump and even asked the president to campaign for him in Texas.
O’Rourke was asked to address a recent Houston Chronicle article that mentioned a witness who claimed O’Rourke tried to leave the scene of the accident during his 1998 DWI. He said that was not true.
In addressing his DWI, O’Rourke spoke directly on issues important to Black voters: the felony check-off on applications and the decriminalization of marijuana.
“As a White man in this country there’s a privilege that I enjoy that many African American men and women do not. They do not have that second chance; they’re forced to check that box on an employment application form that makes it harder for them to get a job,” O’Rourke said. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Additionally, he called to end the War on Drugs, specifically the prohibition on marijuana, so that we won’t have, among other reasons, “another African American man – because more likely than not that’s who will be arrested for possession of marijuana – rot behind bars instead of enjoying his freedom.”
Cruz responded, “I have a libertarian bent myself – I think it ought to be up to the states. I think Colorado can decide one way, I think Texas can decide another.”
Now Say Something Nice
In the final exchange, the moderators sought to end things on a positive note by asking both candidates what they admire in their opponent.
O’Rourke answered graciously, saying that Cruz is a father of young children, that he works hard and has made sacrifices to serve this country. He even thanked him for his service.
Cruz pretty much said “ditto” and then went on to compare him to Bernie Sanders, likening O’Rourke’s passion and enthusiasm to Sanders’ sincere belief in socialism.
“Now I think what he’s fighting for doesn’t work but I think you are absolutely sincere, like Bernie, that you believe in expanding government and higher taxes. And I commend you for fighting for what you believe in.”
In what would become the viral comeback of the night, O’Rourke replied, “True to form.”
So far, in terms of polls and debate performance, the two candidates are near even. There will be two more one-hour debates between the junior senator and the not-so-underdog representative. The University of Houston will host the second debate on Sept. 30, followed by the final debate Oct. 16 in San Antonio.
Early voting begins Oct. 22 and ends Nov. 2. Voting day is Nov. 6. The final day to register to vote in the midterm election is Oct. 9. Find out if you are registered to vote on http://www.votetexas.gov.