You've gotta hand it to Ted Cruz. He might be a ruthlessly self-aggrandizing right-wing bomb-thrower who antagonizes everyone around him, but he also clearly has a rare mixture of good fortune and consummate skill at marshaling his insatiable ambition to the festering cultural alienation that pervades the grassroots of the conservative movement.
Over the past week, Cruz's good luck and talent for exploiting culture war grievances have given him the perfect issue to use and abuse as the fight for the Republican nomination heads into the South. I'm talking about the question of whether women should be required to register with the Selective Service so that they (like men) could be conscripted in the unlikely event that the military draft was reinstated.
For the injection of this issue into the Republican race we can thank ABC News' Martha Raddatz, who at last Saturday's GOP debate asked Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush (but not Cruz) where they stood on the issue. Both of them came down on the side of including women, as did Chris Christie, who volunteered his opinion.
Cruz remained silent.
Until the next day, that is, when he diverged from his stump speech to tell the crowd at a New Hampshire rally, unprompted, that as he listened to his three opponents endorse forcing women to register with the Selective Service, his "reaction was: 'Are you guys nuts?'"
Cruz continued: "I'm the father of two little girls. I love those girls with all of my heart. They are capable of doing anything in their heart's desire, but the idea that their government would forcibly put them in a foxhole with a 220-pound psychopath to kill them doesn't make any sense at all." In fact, it's "one more sign of this politically correct world where we forget common sense." The day after that, Cruz followed up with a Facebook post in which he asserted that drafting women and putting them in close combat "is wrong. It is immoral."
The editors of National Review agreed, weighing in on the day of the New Hampshire primary with an editorial denouncing Rubio, Bush, and Christie, and praising Cruz, for their stances on the issue. Conscription of women, the editors proclaimed, "inverts natural law," which holds that "men should protect women" and should not seek "shelter behind mothers and daughters." With his response to his opponents Cruz showed that he "understood the stakes." If the country forces women into ground combat, National Review's editors declared, "it will take a step toward barbarism."
Ted Cruz, the sole candidate standing against the forces that would make America a "barbaric nation": That's certainly the way he'd like to see himself — and to sell himself to Republican voters.
But is it true?
Well, only if Israel — a country for which today's Republicans normally express unconditional and even wholly uncritical support and praise — is already well on its way to barbarism. Israel, of course, not only permits women in combat roles in the Israeli Defense Forces but conscripts them for two years (men are drafted for three) and keeps them in the active duty reserves until the age of 54.
Then there are all the quasi-barbaric nations that permit women in combat roles without conscripting them (in most cases because these countries do not currently draft anyone), including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, and (as of December 2015) the United States.
Standing athwart barbarism, yelling "Stop!" would appear to be a lonely task.
Except that this isn't really what Cruz and his cheerleaders are doing.
How do we know that? Because their objections are based in nonsense.
There really is no danger that women in a hypothetical draft would be indiscriminately thrown into frontline combat, any more than male conscripts would be. Those who are called up would be subjected to a physical, mental, and moral evaluation process that would determine their fitness for service. On that basis some would be inducted and others not, and those who are would then have to endure the rigors of basic training, after which the inductees would be evaluated once again to determine their fitness for frontline combat, as well as for numerous non-combat duties.
Military duty assignments never have been and never will be made on an open and indiscriminate basis. Which means that the only female recruits who would be sent into frontline combat are those (presumably few) who are able to meet an extremely high and rigorous set of physical standards. No one is going to call up Ted Cruz's daughter and arbitrarily throw her into a foxhole with a 220-pound psychopath.
So why is Cruz trash talking his opponents for daring to affirm the equal opportunity and duty of women to serve their country? Because that's what right-wing culture warriors do — deploy divisive and hyperbolic rhetoric to send a tribalist signal to a group of culturally alienated voters.
Here's the message Cruz is delivering to these right-wing voters: "Did the world make more sense to you when men went to war, women stayed home, and nobody had to devise an argument to justify it? Does the prospect of change make you anxious and angry? Me, too! I'm one of you! Vote for me, and together we will show them — the nuts, the immoral, the barbarians— that we're not going to change a thing."
Will it work? It's hard to say in this volatile year, when every would-be culture warrior has to compete against Donald Trump, a man who's proven himself singularly gifted at invoking tribal solidarity with Republican voters. But this much is clear: Cynical and loathsome as it may be, Cruz is a master manipulator of the us-versus-them anger of conservative voters.