In a 21-hour speech full of weird moments, few were weirder than when Sen. Ted Cruz abandoned all talk of health care, Nazis, and freedom to talk for a while about Duck Dynasty. "This is a show about a god-fearing family of successful entrepreneurs who love guns, who love to hunt, and who believe in the American Dream," Cruz said. "It's something that according to Congress almost shouldn't exist." He then spent the next four minutes reciting a seemingly random collection of quotes from the show, along the lines of "You put five rednecks on mower, it's gonna be epic." It seemed as if one of his staffers, searching for things Cruz could talk about to pass the time, grabbed the list from a website somewhere.
But it wasn't just like reading the phone book, because Duck Dynasty has become for conservatives an island sanctuary in a roiling cultural sea of liberal dangers. In case you're some kind of commie or you live in a monastery, Duck Dynasty is one of the most remarkable American cultural phenomena of the last few years. It's not only the highest-rated show on cable, it's also an endless font of best-selling books, wall calendars, T-shirts, and all manner of other cultural paraphernalia. The show is the most successful of a reality TV format one friend calls "wacky family has interesting business"–maybe they make cakes, or build custom motorcycles, or track down fugitives. In the case of the Robertson clan, they made millions manufacturing duck calls, but retained their homespun charm and (for the men) spectacular beards.
A few months back, I wrote a post with the whimsically counteruntitive title "Rand Paul Is a Genius," about how Paul had managed to garner a huge (if temporary) amount of media attention with a couple of clever moves, the most important of which was staging a real talking filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director. For a couple of days there, all anybody could talk about was Rand Paul. And today, Cruz is the Newz; in the last 24 hours, Politico has run more than 30 articles on Ted Cruz and his speech, examining the topic from every possible angle. You can bet that his staff, once they're done responding to media requests, will raise a glass in salute to the most exciting day in their boss' short Senate career. But if you're a senator with national ambitions, where does this momentary prominence leave you?
Politics is, to a degree we don't often notice, mostly about talking. Politicians describe what they do in heroic, usually martial terms—they "fight" for things, they wage "battles," and so on—but what they actually do is talk, and talk, and talk some more. They talk on the floor of Congress, they talk in committees, they talk to constituents, they talk to each other. There are a few of them, oddly enough, who are not particularly good at talking. But the successful ones are almost all good talkers. So it isn't too surprising that Ted Cruz, the former debate champion who is known as an exceptionally good talker, is able to get up and talk about the satanic plot that is Obamacare for 18 hours straight. There's something fitting about this last stand.
Let's recall that just a few days ago, Cruz was being branded a traitor by Tea Partiers simply for acknowledging that the defunding effort will fail in the Senate. So what better way to get back in their good graces than a grandiose, utterly futile symbolic gesture? That's pretty much what the Tea Party is all about, after all. Cruz's long speech won't actually change anything, either on the question of whether the Senate will pass a continuing resolution defunding the Affordable Care Act (it won't) or whether the ACA will take effect (it will). But in case you are one of the 99.99 percent of Americans who didn't bother to tune in to this remarkable feat of rhetorical endurance, here's a good description:
It's the shoes that make this outfit. (Flickr/Fibonacci Blue)
Here's a little tip for those commenting on public affairs, whether politician, writer, or just someone who finds yourself with a microphone before you. You'll be tempted from time to time to use a historical analogy, comparing present events and controversies to more momentous ones from the past. But there are a few you definitely want to avoid, including the following: I am like Jesus. The people I disagree with are like Nazis. The people I disagree with are like slave owners or segregationists. I or people I like am as oppressed as slaves were, or as Jews in Nazi Germany were. Those comparisons will pop into your head, but do yourself a favor and try to come up with something better. That shouldn't be too hard, should it?
Apparently, it is. Today we saw one of these analogies, and another one that isn't quite so bad but still has some issues. The first was from Robert Benmosche, the CEO of AIG, the company that, you'll recall, kind of destroyed the world economy a few years ago, then was bailed out by the taxpayers. Benmosche complained to the Wall Street Journal that the controversy over whether AIG executives should get bonuses "was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that–sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong."
As always, this guy knows exactly what he's doing. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
I doubt you're eager to hear a great deal more about the impending government shutdown (if you find yourself interested in it for more than four hours, consult a medical professional immediately), but there's a glimmer of hope today that things may actually turn out OK, at least until we have to fight over the debt ceiling in two weeks. And it's all thanks to absurdly complex Senate procedures, which could allow Republicans to save face while keeping the government from shutting down.
As you may have heard, the House recently passed a continuing resolution (CR) temporarily funding the government so long as the Affordable Care Act is defunded, President Barack Obama publicly renounces any intentions to help people get insurance ever again, and a nine-year-old girl with leukemia is delivered to the House floor so members of the Republican caucus can tell her to her face that she's a loser who should get a job and stop being such a drain on society (well OK, not those last two, but perhaps they'll be passed at a later date). This CR can't pass the Democratic-majority Senate, and sane Republicans know that if the government shuts down, the GOP will get the blame. But they also know they need to make as many pointless, symbolic fist-shaking gestures against Obamacare as they possibly can to forestall challenges from the right. No one understands this better than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, possibly the savviest politician in Washington, who is getting just such a Tea Party primary challenge in his ongoing re-election race. What to do?