Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Cruzing at Windmills

Here's the thing about windmills:  They're a stationary target.

When Don Quixote went forth to do battle with them, they couldn't leap out of his way, or run down the street.

Windmills do have large blades that can inflict some damage, no matter how polished one's suit of armor may be.  But it's not that windmills themselves are an appropriate object for conquest.  They may be bigger than you, and have appendages more powerful than you, but they neither attack nor retreat.

How can a conquistador judge his merits and legitimacy against a foe like that?

It's the same way with Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, who's been compared by some in the media to the hapless Quixote.  Cruz's latest crusade ended this morning, when he finished a talking marathon at the Capitol against Obamacare.  Some people inaccurately describe his rambling 21-hour soliloquy on the Senate floor as a "filibuster," when in fact, parliamentary rules had already set a deadline for when he needed to finish talking, if he made it that far.  A real filibuster has no pre-set time limit, and is usually a last-gasp attempt at crippling some piece of legislation.  All Cruz did was whittle away at the time his fellow Republican senators might have had to propose changes or alternatives to the legislation funding the much-maligned healthcare program.

Granted, Cruz has said that he holds some of his fellow Republicans in contempt for being part of the problem in our do-nothing Congress.  Traditional conservative politicians, according to Cruz and his caucus of pugnacious, neo-con legislators, have thrown the Republican party under the bus because some of their old guard persist with the damnable notion that they should be striking compromises with heathen, evil Democrats.

For their part, some of the long-tenured Republicans in both the Senate and the House now publicly bristle at Cruz's cocky tactics, blaming him for derailing any chances the GOP might have had in forcing substantive change on not only Obamacare, but yet another debt ceiling debate that is running on parallel tracks in D.C. towards a brick wall.  They accuse Cruz of grandstanding for his own political ambitions, too arrogant to respectfully sit in silent tutelage of the ways of Washington, and biding one's time while building alliances.

Cruz, on the other hand, bluntly asserts that he wasn't sent to Washington to play the same old game that has helped get America into the state it's in.  And he's right about that.  Word on the street is that the Koch brothers, who have thrown a large chuck of their personal fortunes behind a renewed Libertarian push across the country, helped put Cruz in the Senate, and they expect a quick return on their investment.  A champion Ivy League debater and a seasoned litigator before the Supreme Court, Cruz is one of the most confident people to swagger into the Capital District in years, and even his wary opponents in his own party begrudge him this fact:  a lot of what he says and believes isn't explicitly wrong.

Government has gotten too big and too expensive.  There is too much red tape, too much bureaucratic intrusion into the lives and businesses of everyday Americans.  And when it comes to Obamacare, it really is a monster that needs to be vanquished.

Nevertheless, it's not so much what Cruz says, but how he says it.  Staging a mock filibuster, for example, can be a great way to solidify your admirers, attract attention, and stage a provocative mechanism for your own self-aggrandizement, but you achieve very little actual political advantage.  Cruz has succeeded in entertaining his fan base, but how does that lend legitimacy to what he said?  Cruz captured the media's attention for nearly 24 hours, but what was the media saying about him?  Cruz talked about his dreams for America, but he also incorporated Dr. Seuss and Duck Dynasty into his ramblings, which, again, appeals to his fans, but detracts from his overall message.

Meanwhile, Cruz antagonized his political enemies, gave his critics in the media plenty of fodder with which to mock him, won no new allies in the Senate, secured no changes in Obamacare, changed nobody's mind about Obamacare, and generally portrayed Washington as being the self-righteous hotbed of bickering, self-promotion, and political posturing that Americans on both sides of the aisle already know it to be, and that Cruz himself claims to oppose.

Might Cruz be part of the problem, instead of the solution?  He thinks one person can burst onto the Washington scene and change the course of history by taunting his opponents, waxing nostalgic over his version of America's history, bragging about his immigrant father, and playing Man of La Mancha to Patrick Henry's "united we stand, divided we fall" ultimatum.

Many of us see politics as a sleazy business because good politics involves building coalitions, striking compromises, and collaborating with people who may share similar views on some issues, while on others, remain ideological opposites.  Whether it be in a federal government, a company's governing board, or a non-profit committee, politics that achieves a common good is politics that engages in an intricate dance between shared losses and gains that somehow balance out into overall progress for the whole organization.  The trick is to maintain your dignity while knowing those areas in which concessions you make won't corrupt it.  You've got to know what your absolute, stake-your-claim positions are (which, for the self-professing evangelical Cruz, consists pretty much of only Christ and His Gospel), and where you can afford to cede a bit of  ground.  Simply walking into a political chamber and throwing your opinions out onto a table, saying "take it or leave it," is not politics.  Yes, doing so is very appealing to people who don't like politics, but it's not an effective way of getting anything done in a democratic republic.

The thing is, what you may want for our country is not going to be what everybody else wants for our country.  And ours is not - at least, not yet - an oligarchy, or an autocracy, or a monarchy, in which an insular few control everybody else.

If Ted Cruz was a really good politician, he wouldn't be grandstanding for the television cameras.  He'd be buttonholing his opponents, beseeching them with facts and figures about the reality of Obamacare, listening to why - in the face of all reason - they still support it, and strategizing ways of bridging whatever gaps remain between them.  It's time-consuming, patience-testing, fame-delaying, behind-the-scenes grunt work, but it's how effective politics works.  Both for those who want to work for good policies, and bad ones.

Admire Senator Cruz if you like.  It's a relatively free country, after all.

Just don't expect his tactics to win him - or you - much political success.

And getting back to Patrick Henry, the Founding Father famous for crying both "give me liberty, or give me death," and "united we stand, divided we fall:"  Are you aware of the context in which he paraphrased what is actually a quote from the Bible ("a house divided against itself cannot stand;" Mark 3:25)?

The year was 1799, and Henry, in what would be his last speech, was trying to strike a - gasp! - compromise between Federalists like George Washington and states-rights advocates like Thomas Jefferson.  Cruz may not be aware that, among our Founding Fathers, contentious divisions were viewed by people like Henry as perilous to their fragile new experiment with democracy.  So he implored his colleagues with an impassioned plea to sacrifice personal preferences - however valid they might be in principle - on the altar of unity.

Do you think Cruz would embrace such a concept?  Perhaps the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, has already put Cruz's mindset into prose:

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected.  Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves.  This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth."

"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza.

"The ones you can see over there," answered his master, "with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long."

"Now look, your grace," said Sancho, "what you see over there aren't giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone."

"Obviously," replied Don Quixote, "you don't know much about adventures.”

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