The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maybe Ted Cruz isn’t really ‘smart enough to know better’

And even if he is, maybe that doesn’t matter anymore

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) sits in the House chamber Wednesday as Congress counts the electoral college votes, after a mob stormed the Capitol to disrupt the count earlier in the day. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

There’s a consistent theme in the chattering class’s criticisms of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.): As a smart person, his part in instigating the insurrection at the Capitol is especially contemptible.

A Democratic Party official in Texas scolded, “Shame on him. He knows better, he needs to step down.” Julián Castro, a fellow Texan and a colleague of Cruz's in the also-ran presidential candidate club, observed, “Ted Cruz is a highly intelligent guy … He knows what he's doing, and he knows that he's wrong.” Even other conservatives feel that Cruz has subverted his own genius in the service of playing lickspittle to a traitor. As the National Review put it, “Cruz is perhaps even more culpable, since he assuredly knows better.” His hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle was especially explicit, calling for him to resign as, the editorial explained: “We reserve special condemnation for the perpetrators among them who are of sound mind and considerable intellect — those who should damn well know better.”

This theme goes back to Cruz's first appearance on the national scene, though at that point wielded by pundits who wouldn't like Cruz no matter how smart he was: He was “too smart to believe” the demagogic attacks he made, “too smart not to know” that his policy suggestions were preposterous, and, fatedly, simply “too smart for his own good.”

Ted Cruz thinks 2020 is like 1876. He’s right, but not for the reason he thinks.

I've said similar things about the man, and I confess I now wonder what the point of all that backhanded flattery was. Was it to somehow get to Cruz? To shame him into marginally better behavior?


Having covered Cruz for years, and interviewed him for — literally — hours at a time, I know for a fact that Cruz is aware of this criticism. He reads his own press and dives occasionally into his Twitter mentions (mostly to pick fights with celebrities and colleagues), a level of solipsism that seems rare even among politicians. He knows what people say about him and occasionally attempts to parry the insults with awkward self-deprecation. Of course, playing along with the Internet meme that you’re the Zodiac killer seems less genuinely self-aware than just trying to prove you are in on the joke.

All of which makes his part in the violence and terror at the Capitol even more desperate and craven. He and his co-conspirator from Missouri, Sen. Josh Hawley (who also, people say, “should know better”), put into motion the parliamentary shenanigans that gave President Trump’s supporters the false hope that baited them into their mob attack. Ironically, Cruz has sought to escape blame by pretending not to see the connection: “What I was doing was the exact opposite of inciting violence.” Even though, literally, violence was incited.

An obvious problem with granting someone intelligence even as they use it for ill purposes is that no one has ever found that being smart has anything to do with having a conscience. Did we think, down deep inside, that we could woo him over? That we could harness that supposedly prodigious IQ for good?

Because there is another possible explanation for the pointlessness of conceding to Cruz that thing which is probably the source of his overweening pride: He is not, in fact, “smart enough to know better.”

Beto O’Rourke is a walking, talking Generation X cliche

Perhaps the critics who lauded his capable intellect even as we condemned his actions were actually just trying to claim some authority about who he is. We wanted to give our excoriations more weight with readers, not with him. There’s been so much to excoriate! Cruz has been a singularly unpopular politician since he became one, a man who stands out as arrogant even among other politicians. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) once said, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” Former senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) observed, “I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz.” Former House speaker John A. Boehner (R) called him a jackass!

And all that was for mostly petty maneuvers in the Senate (like performing a grandstanding “filibuster” that was not, actually, a filibuster), before he publicly threw away any claim to integrity by embracing Trump — the man who insulted Cruz’s wife and implied that Cruz’s father killed John F. Kennedy. At every weaselly turn, someone was there to point out that Cruz was a very smart weasel.

But doesn’t Cruz’s continued malfeasance raise the question of whether we’re right about that?

Maybe Cruz is, in fact, a blockhead, just like the ones he managed to spur to tragic, pointless savagery. Maybe he’s a fool with a photographic memory and a knack for mimicry. Or worse than that: Maybe Cruz is devastatingly average. Maybe he has been really, really lucky, and there has been no waste or irony whatsoever to his misdeeds — anyone could have done what he has done. Kowtowing to power doesn’t become less venal just because you can use big words.

In the end, perhaps the tragedy of Ted Cruz has nothing to do with how smart he is. He’s not “too smart for his own good,” he’s just not a good person.

The U.S. is more politically polarized than ever. The Post’s Kate Woodsome asks experts what drives political sectarianism — and what we can do about it. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Jan. 6 insurrection

The report: The Jan. 6 committee released its final report, marking the culmination of an 18-month investigation into the violent insurrection. Read The Post’s analysis about the committee’s new findings and conclusions.

The final hearing: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held its final public meeting where members referred four criminal charges against former president Donald Trump and others to the Justice Department. Here’s what the criminal referrals mean.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6. Here’s what we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6.