It’s the hypocrisy, stupid.
Much mirth has already been derived from Ted Cruz’s announcement that he is running for president in 2016; Twitter users were sharpening their rhetorical knives with cutting hashtags in preparation for his official declaration, while pundits from Jamelle Bouie of Slate to Donny Deutsch of MSNBC’s Morning Joe have gone on record to proclaim that Cruz is unelectable.
While these various observations may be valid, not enough attention has been paid to a far more important point. The fact that Cruz’s candidacy is being taken seriously at all speaks to a pervasive hypocrisy among Republican conservatives. After all, as anyone with a heartbeat from 2009 to 2012 no doubt recalls, one of the most popular right-wing claims about President Obama is that he wasn’t actually born in this country. At the height of “birtherism” in 2011, a poll found that more than half of likely 2012 Republican primary voters (51 percent) believed Obama was foreign-born and thus ineligible for the presidency, while more than one-fifth (21 percent) were “not sure” about the matter. As recently as last year, only 34 percent of Republicans could bring themselves to openly admit that their president had indeed been born in Honolulu.
Yet here we are. As the 2016 election looms ahead of us, the first declared Republican candidate—a man whom political handicappers readily acknowledge will depend on Tea Party support, who played a large role in fueling birtherism—makes no bones about the fact that he was born in Calgary, a city in Canada.
And nary a peep of protest can be heard from the right.
Before we continue on to deconstruct the long, inglorious history of right-wing double standards, let us dispel any notion that Cruz’s place of birth disqualifies him for the presidency. Although Section 1 of Article 2 in the Constitution indeed states that only “a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President,” Section 301(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act automatically extends naturalized citizenship to anyone born of an American citizen. Because Cruz’s mother, Eleanor Wilson, was born in Delaware, the senator from Texas without question passes Constitutional muster.
Of course, not even the Obama-era birthers seemed to question that the president’s mother, Ann Dunham, was born in Kansas. Even if their most far-fetched conspiracy theories about Barack Obama entering first this world in his father’s native Kenya were true, they wouldn’t matter any more than if Cruz had been born in his father’s native Cuba. Legally speaking, birtherism was as much of a non-issue from the get-go for Obama as it is now for Cruz.
Hence why words like “hypocrisy” come into play.
However, this is hardly the first example of Republican double standards. The pages of recent American political history are littered with examples of brazen conservative duplicity that match or even exceed the current birtherian farce. In the 1950s and 1960s, two presidential aspirants were attacked by conservatives as unfit for the White House because they were divorcees—first a liberal Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, and then a liberal Republican, Nelson Rockefeller—but when Ronald Reagan earned the Republican nomination in 1980, the fact that he would be (and eventually became) the first divorcee president was implicitly forgiven.
More recently, the same Republicans who chanted “flip-flop” at their party’s 2004 national convention because Democratic candidate John Kerry had switched positions on the Iraq war had no qualms about nominating Mitt Romney in 2012, despite his myriad flip-flops on issues ranging from health-care reform and abortion to gay rights.
There is even something of a pre-Cruz precedent for birther-related double standards: After all, the first Republican to challenge Obama for the presidency was John McCain, whose birth certificate has him entering this world in the Panama Canal Zone. That situation isn’t precisely analogous to the one with Cruz—the Panama Canal Zone was owned by the United States at the time McCain was born there—but it’s hard to imagine Obama getting away with the same rationale if he had been born, say, at the American embassy in Kenya.
Of course, there is a simple reason why these hypocrisies are so prevalent. When conservatives lambasted the divorces of Stevenson and Rockefeller, the anti-war positions of Kerry, or the birthplace of Obama, what they were really attacking was the cultural ethos each of those candidates seemed to represent in their minds. Because Stevenson and Rockefeller were outspokenly liberal on domestic issues, social conservatives were quick to jump on their unsuccessful marriages as proof that they were fundamentally immoral individuals. Similarly, because Kerry rose to national prominence as a heroic Vietnam War veteran who spoke out against the war to the Senate after returning home, it was inevitable that the post-9/11 GOP would find a way to attack his patriotism and steadfastness.
With Obama and birtherism, meanwhile, the underlying issue has always been a racial one. As a 2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology put it, “the influence of racial prejudice in contemporary U.S. society is typically manifested in subtle, indirect forms of bias. Due to prevailing norms of equality, most whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of blacks, in part because of a genuine desire to live up to their egalitarian standards, but also because of concern regarding social censure.”
Consequently, conservatives who felt that an African American was somehow inherently illegitimate as a president couldn’t comfortably declare as much in the open political market. By focusing on a conspiracy theory that cast the president as quite literally un-American—regardless of how self-evidently absurd that conspiracy theory might be—they could tap into their emotional distrust of America’s first black president without seeming overtly racist.
By contrast, Ted Cruz is solidly conservative on racial issues. Despite being of partially Latino heritage, he is a well-known admirer of racial reactionaries like Jesse Helms and has taken right-wing positions on racially charged issues like immigration reform and affirmative action. Just as Reagan’s moral character was never questioned because he was a social conservative, and Romney’s flip-flopping wasn’t held against him because Republicans took his patriotism for granted, so too does Cruz benefit from not being perceived as a threat by conservatives susceptible to the delusional beliefs GOP operative John Avlon has aptly dubbed “white minority politics.”
The double standard on Ted Cruz’s citizenship status is only the latest entry in this disgraceful chapter of American history, but at least we can console ourselves with one fact: No matter where he was born, Cruz stands absolutely no chance of actually winning.
Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)