What in the world are we to make of it?
Certainly the punditocracy has not come up short on feedback. Top Republicans are livid at Cruz for what they perceive to be his grandstanding, even going so far as to send research to Fox News correspondent Chris Wallace to be used against him. Progressives, naturally, despise his vitriolic liberal-bashing as symptomatic of what is so toxic about our political culture, with terms like "brute" and "embarrassment" appearing in a recent New York Times piece. Tea Partyers, predictably, are strongly backing him, even going so far as to consider opposing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the primaries for his unwillingness to support Cruz's effort.
Yet for all of this talk about Cruz's motives, precious little has been said about the speech itself. To better understand the former, a look at the latter is quite instructive.
Poring through the transcript, one first notices an almost schizophrenic quality to the text, a compulsive tendency to wildly vacillate between the shrill platitudes that have marked Tea Party anti-Obamacare rhetoric since 2009 and silly little asides meant to humanize the speaker (and, presumably, leaven the proceedings for listeners and readers). Hence the same address can contain self-martyring grandstanding ("I intend to speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand."), a flagrant violation of Godwin's Law ("If you go to the 1940s, Nazi Germany. Look, we saw in Britain, Neville Chamberlain, who told the British people, 'Accept the Nazis. Yes, they’ll dominate the continent of Europe but that’s not our problem. Let’s appease them. Why? Because it can’t be done. We can’t possibly stand against them.'"), an endorsement of White Castle burgers ("I like their little burgers … I’m a big fan of eating White Castle burgers."), and the standard series of right-wing talking points ("This bill is not working because it kills jobs and the backbone of the American middle class, because it’s killing free clinics and reducing access to care, because Americans love freedom....")
While it wouldn't be fair to characterize this as Cruz saying nothing, he certainly isn't saying anything useful or new. Opponents of Obamacare may feel some catharsis but will hardly walk away with novel or intelligent ways to advance their case (Ron Paul or William F. Buckley, Cruz is not); supporters will be incensed, but their ire was inevitable, so Cruz's ability to call it forth required no real talent; and those on the fence will, given the lack of any innovating or inspiring argument from Cruz's text, likely remain exactly where they were before. Indeed, one could be forgiven for recalling some choice words penned by H. L. Mencken nearly a century ago about one of the most infamous orations of all time: the inaugural address of President Warren G. Harding.
"When Dr. Harding [a sarcastic honorific] prepares a speech he does not think of it in terms of an educated reader locked up in jail, but in terms of a great horde of stoneheads gathered around a stand. That is to say, the thing is always a stump speech; it is conceived as a stump speech and written as a stump speech. More, it is a stump speech addressed to the sort of audience that the speaker has been used to all of his life, to wit, an audience of small town yokels, of low political serfs, or morons scarcely able to understand a word of more than two syllables, and wholly unable to pursue a logical idea for more than two centimeters. Such imbeciles do not want ideas — that is, new ideas, ideas that are unfamiliar, ideas that challenge their attention. What they want is simply a gaudy series of platitudes, of sonorous nonsense driven home with gestures."
And that, ultimately, was the point of Ted Cruz's recent spectacle. The content of what he said didn't really matter; so long as it touched the right nerves, it would achieve its main objective, which was to be noticed. Cruz is now the top search on Google Trends, one of the hottest names in the Republican Party, a man who — for better worse —
In short, America was just subjected to a 21 hour political Rorschach test, one of the biggest and flashiest in recent memory. Republicans, Democrats, liberal, conservatives ... whether they loved it or hated it, the very fact that they paid attention meant that they played their part. When the history of Obamacare is written, of course, this speech will only be a footnote (any procedural maneuvering that impedes its funding will have come from parliamentary technicians like the much-maligned McConnell, not the self-indulgent Cruz), but it may be one that belongs in boldface. After all, when else has American politics offered such a perfect encapsulation of the Shakespearean aphorism:
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."