Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) put on a masterclass in his appearance on NBC News’ Meet the Press with David Gregory on Sunday. In less than twenty minutes, Cruz not only demolished Democrat arguments–as transmitted by the ever-eager Gregory–but also showed a keen insight into debate tactics that Republicans often lack. Here are the five key tactics, which should be studied and drilled into Republican politicians in media training.
1. Question the premise. On two separate occasions, Cruz pushed back against the implicit assumptions in questions Gregory asked–assumptions designed by Gregory to put Cruz on the defensive. In each case, Cruz challenged the question itself before answering, and then used his answer to return to the offensive.
In the first case, Gregory implied Cruz had not engaged in a “debate” about how to “change” Obamacare:
GREGORY: It’s interesting. Democrats say, “You know, the problem with Senator Cruz’s position is that it’s a purist position.” There are problems with Obamacare. The White House admits that. We talked about polling in some quarters indicating great dissatisfaction with the law, as you’re talking about in Town Hall meetings. But you have to engaged in a debate about how they change the law. What you’ve gone out and said is, “Let’s kill the law all together. Let’s de-fund it.”
CRUZ: Actually, with respect, David, I think the premise of your question is wrong. It is the Democrats who have taken the absolutist position. Look, I’ve engaged– I’d like to repeal every word of the law. But that wasn’t my position, even in this fight.
That turnabout created headlines, drawing public attention to the refusal of Democrats to compromise.
In the second case, Gregory brutally distorted a remark by Cruz about Neville Chamberlain:
GREGORY: Do you regret comparing the future of Obamacare to the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany?
CRUZ: Well, the premise of your question isn’t true. I didn’t make that comparison. What I said is that there have been many voices in Washington who’ve said, “We can’t do this, we can’t do this, we can’t do this.” And I went through the contracts where, over and over again, when facing big challenges, Americans have risen to the occasion, whether it was the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, whether it was going to the moon under John F. Kennedy, or whether it was winning the Cold War.
The addition of Kennedy at the end–to counter Gregory’s false Hitler reference–was a nice touch.
2. Stick to the message. Gregory wanted to make the interview all about a government shutdown. Cruz kept his own answers focused on Obamacare. That frustrated Gregory, who nearly lost his composure: “You’re making an argument….You’ve made all these arguments. My goodness, you went and spoke for 21 hours to make these arguments. You haven’t moved anyone.” Cruz, in contrast, looked calm and focused–and kept the debate on terms where he had the distinct advantage, given Obamacare’s unpopularity.
An additional note on this point: Democrats, having been through the talking-points-factory that is left-wing media training (and produces such robots as Debbie Wasserman Schultz), are very good at sticking to their message, but largely because they simply keep repeating it, regardless of the circumstances. What Cruz did was different, and more effective: he found a way to make his message relevant to each context in the debate.
3. Cite your opponents’ supporters in your favor. Gregory came armed with quotes from Republicans and Beltway conservatives who disapprove of what Cruz is doing. Cruz countered, as he did frequently on the Senate floor, with direct quotes from Democrats’ core constituents, including Teamsters Union leader James Hoffa, who has led a new surge of opposition to Obamacare from the left. Cruz’s ready access to the Hoffa quote also shows the importance of research and preparation, and reflects well on his political staff.
4. Never forget your constituency. My favorite moment in the interview was when Gregory read Cruz an extended quote from George Will, and Cruz responded by saying, effectively, that Will only represents his own view, while a Senator from Texas represents millions of voters who knew what they were getting:
GREGORY: George Will, who’s been a conservative columnist for The Washington Post and others, has been very supportive of you in the past. But he wrote this, this week. I want to have you respond to it…
CRUZ: Look, I’m just trying to fight for 26 million Texans and for the American people. And I’m pretty sure George Will, in that column, argued that what we should be doing is delaying Obamacare, which is exactly what the House of Representatives just voted to do.
5. Believe that your opponent secretly agrees with you. Gregory is certainly on the left, but Cruz never treated him as an enemy. Rather, he approached the host as if he could be brought ’round, given the true facts. The above quote, about George Will, is instructive. Note that Cruz did not say that Will was wrong–instead, he found a point of agreement within Will’s column and emphasized that. By finding ways to show that his opponents might actually agree with him, Cruz encouraged even skeptical viewers to ask themselves whether they might, as well. And his supporters had plenty to cheer without watching yet another Republican guest try to earn points with the press by backtracking on previous convictions.