When Ted Cruz ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he executed a striking about-face on sentencing reform, opposing legislation that was less ambitious than a bill he had cosponsored just eight months before. The Texas senator's explanation, which featured the sort of tough-on-crime demagoguery he had previously resisted, was utterly illogical but made political sense as part of an effort to attract conservative primary voters. Now that he is running a surprisingly close re-election campaign against Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, who supports marijuana legalization as well as sentencing reform, Cruz is doubling down on the dumb authoritarian rhetoric in the hope of motivating his supporters to vote by painting O'Rourke as a dangerous radical.
Last month Cruz, who boasts about his support among cops, claimed on Twitter that O'Rourke "sides against the police" at every opportunity. Nine minutes later, Cruz posted a video of O'Rourke speaking at a Dallas church after the September 6 shooting of Botham Shem Jean. Amber Guyger, the off-duty Dallas police officer who shot Jean, said she mistook him for a burglar after mistaking his apartment for hers. Here is what O'Rourke had to say about the incident:
How can it be, in this day and age, in this very year, in this community, that a young man, African American, in his own apartment is shot and killed by a police officer? And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what is released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen. How can that be just in this country? How can we continue to lose the lives of unarmed black men in the United States of America at the hands of white police officers? That is not justice. That is not us. That can and must change. Are you with me on this?
Cruz, who captioned the video "In Beto O'Rourke's own words," clearly was presenting it as evidence of his opponent's anti-cop bias. That's absolutely bonkers, given that Guyger's shooting of Jean was so egregious that it was condemned by commentators across the political spectrum. Even if you take her account of the shooting at face value, she was guilty of deadly carelessness at the very least.
Cruz's tweet about the Jean shooting cannot be dismissed as a one-time gaffe. A week before, he had told a local TV station that O'Rourke was jumping to conclusions when he said the Dallas Police Department should fire Guyger. While Jean's death was a "tragic situation where everyone is horrified by what happened," Cruz said six days after Guyger was arrested for manslaughter, "I wish Beto O'Rourke and Democrats weren't so quick to always blame the police officer." Not to put too fine a point on it, but when a cop enters someone's home with no legal justification and shoots him dead, there is no mystery about who is to blame.
"If there was ever a justified national WTF moment regarding police brutality, the Botham Shem Jean shooting was it," Jack Hunter observes at The American Conservative. "O'Rourke was right to call for the officer's firing. How many times have conservative Republicans called for government bureaucrats to be fired for basic incompetence? (And they should!) A government agent who happens to wear a badge unquestionably deserves due process but not special treatment."
Cruz also has attacked O'Rourke for his critique of mass incarceration and racial bias in the criminal justice system. During a September 19 campaign event, O'Rourke alluded to Michelle Alexander's book on that subject, The New Jim Crow, calling the phrase "an apt description." As the Houston Chronicle noted in an editorial, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Cruz's erstwhile ally on sentencing reform, has used similar language. Yet at a September 21 debate, Cruz presented O'Rourke's comments as further evidence that he hates cops, falsely claiming that "Congressman O'Rourke described law enforcement, described police officers, as modern-day Jim Crow," adding, "That is not Texas."
Cruz's criticism of O'Rourke's views on drug policy have been only slightly more nuanced. To his credit, Cruz still takes a federalist approach to marijuana, saying states should be free to legalize it without interference from Washington. That stance is consistent with Cruz's avowed respect for the Constitution and with public opinion. Last year a Quinnipiac University poll found that 75 percent of Americans, including 59 percent of Republicans, opposed "enforcing federal laws against marijuana" in the 29 states that "have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana." Another Quinnipiac survey conducted last April found that 61 percent of Texas voters think recreational use of marijuana should be legal. Even the Texas Republican Party has endorsed eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
Rather than swimming against the marijuana tide, Cruz portrays O'Rourke as a crazy extremist who wants to legalize all drugs. "Reasonable minds, perhaps, can differ on whether marijuana should be illegal," Cruz told reporters in May, "but what Congressman O'Rourke introduced was a resolution for the City Council to take up legalizing all narcotics, legalizing everything, legalizing heroin, legalizing deadly opioids….This country is facing a crisis—an opioid crisis…and in light of that growing tragedy, Congressman O'Rourke's radical proposal to legalize all narcotics is a suggestion that might be very popular up at Berkeley. It might be popular in far-left circles, but it doesn't reflect the values of Texans. Texans don't want to see heroin and deadly opioids legalized and our kids able to just walk in to the corner store and buy them."
Cruz was referring to O'Rourke's support, as an El Paso city councilman, for an "honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics." O'Rourke added that recommendation to a 2009 resolution about drug war violence, and here is how he explained it at the time: "I'm not saying that we need to do that—to end the prohibition. I think we need to have a serious discussion about doing that, and that may, in the end, be the right course of action." In his 2011 book Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico, O'Rourke claimed he mainly had in mind marijuana, which he erroneously referred to as a "narcotic" (consistent with longtime government practice). Although I wish O'Rourke were mounting a broader critique of the war on drugs, it clearly is not accurate to say he wants to "legalize all narcotics," and Cruz's bit about kids buying heroin at the corner store makes him sound like a mindless drug warrior circa 1985.
This sort of cheap fearmongering is not just disappointing from a politician who has shown he is capable of discussing criminal justice in a more thoughtful way. Attacks like these can have a real impact on the prospects for reform, already threatened by an administration that is more interested in ratcheting up penalties than in making the system less mindlessly punitive.
"While they may address the issues from different perspectives, Democrats and Republicans have worked together in fighting mass incarceration and refocusing efforts toward rehabilitation," the Chronicle notes. "This cooperation included an unspoken detente on scaremongering and race-baiting campaigns. Without the fear of cheap attacks, politicians and policymakers have been free to discuss the failings of our criminal justice system in stark, earnest terms. Historically low crime rates certainly contributed to that political truce. In his campaign for re-election, Cruz has shattered that truce."