When Ted Cruz invoked the name of Alton Sterling—the black man shot by police in Baton Rouge in 2016—before the Republican National Convention two years ago, I wrote an entire column thanking the Texas senator.
I commended Cruz for joining a growing chorus of conservatives who were beginning to see how heavy-handed law enforcement and a penal system that disproportionately punishes minorities was a big government problem that deserved more attention.
For a number of years now, high-profile figures on the right—like Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, former Texas governor Rick Perry, tax activist Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, and others—have taken up the mantle of criminal justice reform, including a focus on how African Americans have uniquely suffered.
Yet today, Cruz has taken the opposite approach—to a degree that is shameful.
When Cruz’s competitive Democratic opponent, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, spoke to a historic black church last month in Dallas, he said, “How can it be, in this day and age, in this very year, in this community, that a young man, African American, in his own apartment, is shot and killed by a police officer?”
O’Rourke continued, “And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what’s released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen.”
O’Rourke was referring to Botham Shem Jean, a black Dallas man who was shot in his own apartment by a police officer who thought she had entered her own residence. The shooting happened a mere week prior to O’Rourke’s church speech. The circumstances of the killing, along with police thinking it was somehow necessary for the public to know that Jean had a small amount of pot in his home, captivated the country across ideological lines.
“How can that be just in this country?” O’Rourke asked. “How can we continue to lose the lives of unarmed black men in the United States of America at the hands of white police officers?” He continued, “That is not justice. That is not us. That can and must change.”
But Ted Cruz is apparently no longer on board. Cruz instead tweeted a video of O’Rourke’s speech, adding, “In O’Rourke’s own words,” seeming to condemn his language.
What is remotely wrong with O’Rourke’s “own words” there? They were spot-on, and the questions he asked the church audience were par for the course for anyone, right or left, who advocates for criminal justice reform and against police brutality.
What Cruz meant in his tweet can perhaps be gleaned from his reaction to O’Rourke’s call for the officer who shot Jean to be fired. “I wish Beto O’Rourke and Democrats weren’t so quick to always blame the police officer,” Cruz said.
Cruz is right. No one accused of wrongdoing should ever be condemned outright before we have all the facts. Yet so many victims of police brutality are almost immediately denounced, their reputations tarnished, as the Dallas police department appeared to be doing over Jean’s possession of marijuana. (Jean could have had an entire meth lab in his apartment and it would not have justified a police officer walking into his own home and allegedly gunning him down where he stood.)
O’Rourke was right to call for the officer’s firing. How many times have conservative Republicans called for government bureaucrats to be fired for basic incompetence? (And they should!) A government agent who happens to wear a badge unquestionably deserves due process but not special treatment.
This shift by Cruz hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Bipartisan criminal justice reform casualty of Cruz campaign” read the headline in a Thursday editorial of the Houston Chronicle. “All candidates have to make sacrifices on the path to Election Day,” said the staff editorial. “U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has decided to sacrifice criminal justice reform, and that’s a real shame.”
While they may address the issues from different perspectives, Democrats and Republicans have worked together in fighting mass incarceration and refocusing efforts toward rehabilitation. Part of this cooperation included an unspoken detente on scaremongering and race-baiting campaigns. Without the fear of cheap attacks, politicians and policymakers have been free to discuss the failings of our criminal justice system in stark, earnest terms…. In his campaign for re-election, Cruz has shattered that truce. He has targeted otherwise bipartisan rhetoric about criminal justice reform as the subject for convenient campaign season attacks.
Unfortunately, this was but the latest example of Cruz turning away from the criminal justice reform positions he once advocated.
“Ted Cruz abandons criminal justice reform on his way to the White House,” observed Forbes’ Jacob Sullum in 2016, when Cruz was running for president:
A year ago, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley condemned a sentencing reform bill backed by Ted Cruz as “lenient” and “dangerous.” Eight months later, it was Cruz’s turn. Explaining his opposition to a sentencing reform bill backed by Grassley, Cruz described it as dangerously lenient.
When the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Grassley’s bill by a 3-to-1 margin in October, Cruz joined four other Republicans in voting no. The Texas senator—once a leading Republican critic of excessively harsh criminal penalties, especially for nonviolent drug offenders—had effectively traded places with Grassley, a law-and-order Iowa Republican who has long resisted efforts to reduce those penalties.
“It is hard to escape the impression that Cruz, who is running second to Donald Trump in the race for the Republican presidential nomination and has a good shot at winning the Iowa caucus on Monday, decided to abandon a cause that might alienate conservative primary voters,” Sullum concluded.
Obviously this political calculation did not pan out well for Cruz in the 2016 presidential primaries.
Though the increasingly popular O’Rourke is a talented politician, conservatives should hope that Republicans keep control of the Senate in the midterms and a Cruz victory next month would likely play a role in that outcome.
But part of what has made Beto O’Rourke formidable against Cruz in deep red Texas, or at least more competitive than anyone would have expected, is that the liberal Democrat comes across as authentic. He sticks to his progressive guns under pressure.
Before the rise of Donald Trump, Cruz was viewed by much of the GOP base as one of the most authentic conservative champions in the Republican party. It was a brand that once included, however significant or insignificant, his more libertarian than authoritarian stance on criminal justice reform.
By flip-flopping on what is still mostly an under-the-radar issue with general voters, the Texas senator is unlikely to pick up any more votes from law-and-order Republicans than he would have otherwise.
But among those who do care about criminal justice reform and combatting police brutality—libertarians, young people, most Americans, and an encouraging number of Texas conservatives—the opportunistic Ted Cruz will continue to come across as less authentic than he used to be.