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