Ken Her­man: Ted and Beto de­bate the is­sues, Part One

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Ken Her­man

UNIVER­SITY PARK — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Demo­cratic chal­lenger U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke fi­nally had a much an­tic­i­pated faceto-face dur­ing a Fri­day night de­bate that high­lighted two dif­fer­ent ways to do pol­i­tics and per­son­hood in mod­ern Amer­ica, a con­trast that has at­tracted na­tional at­ten­tion to a race we once thought was des­tined to be a lit­tle ol’ Texas con­test with the usual ol’ Texas out­come.

The two can­di­dates’ dif­fer­ing styles made for 60 min­utes that moved along briskly and served as a use­ful point/coun­ter­point pre­sen­ta­tion on their dif­fer­ing po­si­tions. I’m glad we’re go­ing to see two more of these de­bates prior to Elec­tion Day. I doubt the de­bates will change many minds or votes, but they are valu­able.

The first of the three Cruz-O’Rourke de­bates came as the sum to­tal of re­cent polls made one thing per­fectly clear in this race: Noth­ing is per­fectly clear in this race. All we know is some­thing we haven’t known in a gen­er­a­tion or so in Texas, and that is that a Demo­crat could win a statewide race in Texas, some­thing that last hap­pened in 1994.

For the first 50 min­utes or so, the two can­di­dates traded fa­mil­iar po­si­tions and barbs; noth­ing ter­ri­bly new was said. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, O’Rourke men­tioned as fre­quently as he could that he’s been to all 254 Texas coun­ties (the me­dia room gig­gled each time) and his call for a new era of bi­par­ti­san­ship in which folks of each party can ac­knowl­edge the pos­si­bil­ity that the folks in the other party could have an oc­ca­sional idea worth pur­su­ing.

Cruz, also char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, gave no ground on par­ti­san­ship, in­clud­ing find­ing it nec­es­sary to re­mind folks that south­ern Democrats of some gen­er­a­tions ago were racists.

But the mo­ment of the night — the line of the night — came on the tail end of an at­tempt at a de­bate-end­ing kum­baya ques­tion from mod­er­a­tor Julie Fine of Metro­plex sta­tion NBC5.

“We’d like to end this for both of you on a very pos­i­tive note,” Fine said. “We’d like to ask you to tell us some­thing you ad­mire about your op­po­nent.”

The query drew an “ooh” from the au­di­ence in South­ern Methodist Univer­sity’s McFar­lin Au­di­to­rium.

O’Rourke went first and went pos­i­tive. He started by not­ing that both he and Cruz were elected to Con­gress in 2012.

“We both have young chil­dren. I know how hard he works. I know how much time he has spent away from his kids. I know what a sac­ri­fice that is to his fam­ily,” O’Rourke said. “I know that he’s do­ing it for one rea­son. He wants to serve this coun­try, and he’s try­ing to do his best.”

He con­tin­ued: “We may have dif­fer­ences of opin­ions on what our des­ti­na­tion might be and how we’re go­ing to get there, but I have no ques­tion that Sen. Cruz wants to do the best for Amer­ica and he does so at great sac­ri­fice to his fam­ily and to his kids. So I thank you Sen. Cruz for your pub­lic ser­vice.”

Aw, nice. As was the first part of Cruz’s an­swer.

“I would ex­press the very same sen­ti­ments back at Con­gress­man O’Rourke,” he said. “You’re right. Be­ing a dad of young kids is hard. I know the sac­ri­fice you’re putting in. My girls every day, when I leave for the cam­paign trail, it’s hard. There are a lot of tears in the Cruz house­hold. I’m sure there are in the O’Rourke house­hold, too. That is the sin­gle hard­est part of do­ing this.”

See? Also nice. Then Cruz said more words: “Look, I think Con­gress­man O’Rourke is pas­sion­ate. He is en­er­getic. He be­lieves in what he’s fight­ing for . ... You know, last year I did three de­bates with Bernie San­ders, and I ex­pressed this at all three de­bates, that Bernie San­ders be­lieves in what he’s fight­ing for.”

OK, still nice, I guess. And then Cruz went, well, all Cruz.

“He be­lieves in so­cial­ism,” he said of San­ders and, by way of bank shot, O’Rourke. “Now I think what he’s fight­ing for doesn’t work, but I think you are ab­so­lutely sin­cere like Bernie that you be­lieve in ex­pand­ing gov­ern­ment and higher taxes, and I com­mend you for fight­ing for what you be­lieve in. You noted we dis­agree on the out­come, but you’re fight­ing for the prin­ci­ples you be­lieve in, and I re­spect that.”

I don’t know. Maybe he could have ended with not­ing the sac­ri­fice that O’Rourke’s fam­ily, like all po­lit­i­cal fam­i­lies, makes. That would have been nice, right? But Cruz couldn’t re­sist, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for O’Rourke to re­sist this as­sess­ment of Cruz’s an­swer: “True to form,” he di­ag­nosed.

Af­ter the de­bate, O’Rourke was asked about those three words, perhaps des­tined to be the most re­mem­bered from Round 1 of the Cruz-O’Rourke match.

“That’s just what came to mind,” he said.

It prob­a­bly came to a few other Tex­ans’ minds as well.

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