By Dahlia Lithwick
Yes. It’s true. I was on the college debate circuit with Ted Cruz. I spent four years debating for Yale College on the American Parliamentary Debate Association merry-go-round of yellow legal pads, painfully awkward Friday-night keggers, and the infinite silliness that came with fighting for tiny silver-plated trophies each weekend. This week, watching the flameout of Cruz’s presidential run, I can confidently say that he’d have had a far more effective life in politics if he’d remained in the law.
My whole college debate experience with Ted Cruz can be distilled into a single, visceral, impression: that of being trapped in a too-small classroom in some dusty Ivy League building, with an opponent too big for the space. My memories of Ted are that he was too loud, too umbragey, and too rehearsed in an activity meant to mirror the clubby, off-the-cuff charms of the British Parliament.
Until he made it to a final or semifinal round, every moment of any debate against Cruz was experienced as a mismatch between competitor and venue. You braced yourself to be screamed at by someone who wanted it more than anyone else. And you watched as the judges—usually college students, other debaters, and some faculty—clutched the edge of their long table as Cruz opened the tap on his ambitions and flooded the room.
If you’ve known Cruz since college, it’s easy to say that he has changed not at all. I’ve read numerous profiles that describe his time on the parliamentary debate circuit. They describe him as a fully realized conservative firebrand at 18, someone so fiercely competitive that he would pore over his debate ballots after tournaments in order to improve future performances. He was—most of his debate contemporaries would agree—often overrehearsed for what was meant to be a fairly casual extemporaneous competition. He could be moralistic and humorless. My frequent debate partner, Austan Goolsbee, who later served as an economic adviser to President Obama, could famously reduce Cruz to a puddle of goo with a well-timed joke.
Cruz’s style invariably tended toward the pompous, achieving the unenviable end of making a fun, oratorical activity into a joyless weekend slog. He liked to reframe whatever the topic was to his own advantage, a ploy he used effectively in GOP debates throughout the campaign. (We all heard the endless recitation of his father’s arrival from Cuba to Texas with $100 sewn into his underwear, even if the topic on the table was euthanasia or the line-item veto.) And while one retrospective article described Cruz as “sort of a stud” on the debate circuit, I was struck less by his studliness than by his hyperfocused competitive instinct. Ted wanted to crush, crush, win, win, crush. He may have hoped for some Friday-night action on the side, but the real object here was the inexorable climb to the next height and the one after that.
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