What do you do with a compliment from someone you don’t like? Do you brag about it to friends, or are you obligated to disregard it for the sake of consistent grudgery?
These are the questions Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz must confront as the mainstream media — which he seems to consider a mortal enemy — showers him with praise, following another strong debate performance Thursday night in North Charleston, S.C. Many columnists and analysts say the Texas senator got the better of GOP front-runner Donald Trump when the candidates clashed; virtually everyone agrees that he at least held his own.
In the New York Times (quite possibly Cruz’s least-favorite publication) Michael Barbaro wrote that “Mr. Cruz did not just dominate much of the Republican debate, he slashed, he mocked, he charmed and he outmaneuvered everybody else onstage — but none as devastatingly and as thoroughly as this campaign’s most commanding performer, Donald J. Trump.”
Politico’s Glenn Thrush ruled that “Cruz easily parried Trump’s bully-boy attacks and lacerated the Republican front-runner like a Harvard debate team senior hazing a stuttering frosh.”
Even CNN’s David Axelrod — the former Obama adviser (ugh!) — offered kudos to Cruz.
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) January 15, 2016
This isn’t a fluke, either. While Cruz basks in the conservative street cred he gets from “attacks” and "hit pieces" launched by the “liberal media” — the Times’ day-of-debate Goldman Sachs story being the latest example — the fact is that he is widely regarded and covered in the press as a skilled politician. And nowhere are Cruz’s skills more evident than on the debate stage.
Two weeks from now, just before the Iowa caucuses, Cruz will have another chance to take on Trump and the rest of the Republican field in a Fox News Channel debate. Barring some stunning turn of events, that will likely mean a fresh round of stories about how he beat the Manhattan billionaire — who is not a great debater and whose poll numbers typically sag after these forums.
Though it might pain him, Cruz should embrace the love. Playing up praise from the press — especially when that praise is about out-performing Trump — would help Cruz sell the narrative that his campaign has all the momentum. When you’re not leading, is there any more valuable political currency than momentum?
I suspect that Cruz’s legalistic instinct is that, after relentlessly discrediting the media throughout his campaign, he can’t say that journalists’ evaluations mean anything now. It would be hypocritical to do so.
That’s true, of course. But if Trump has proven anything, it’s that a candidate can have it both ways with the press. Recall this moment in Thursday’s debate:
Trump: NBC/Wall Street Journal just came out with a poll. Headline: Trump way up, Cruz going down. I mean, so don’t — so you can’t — you can’t …
… they don’t like the Wall Street Journal. They don’t like NBC. But I like the poll.
Is it completely two-faced to bash certain news organizations in one moment and then cherry-pick their most favorable reports in another? Yup. I’m not saying it’s the admirable thing to do. But strategically speaking, it can clearly work. Look how well it works for Trump. No one hates on the media more than he does, and no one is better at plucking stories and polls that make him look good.
As he comes down the stretch in Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz should learn from the man he’s trying to catch.