Bill Cohen, the former Republican three-term U.S. senator and U.S. representative from Maine, never lost an election. He was elected to the Bangor City Council before being elected that city’s mayor and then winning the first of three terms in the U.S. House. When he was nominated by a new Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to be secretary of Defense, Cohen was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate. He explained a key to his success: “I don’t care how great your ideas are or how well you can articulate them. People must like you before they will vote for you.”
Is likeability overrated in voters’ candidate choices? Just remember that over the last eight presidential elections, the Republican nominee has won a majority of the popular vote exactly once, and the GOP standard-bearer has gotten more votes than his Democratic opponent exactly once. That was President George W. Bush running for reelection in 2004 against Sen. John Kerry. And the consensus explanation for Bush’s popular achievement was that he won the “which of these candidates would you rather have a beer with” test.
Having made himself, during his first two years in the Senate, by his self-centered arrogance and relentless self-promotion, that chamber’s most unpopular member among both Republicans and Democrats, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tried to sell his near-universal unlikability as a virtue: “If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy,” he offered during a GOP presidential debate, “but if you want someone who will drive you home, I will get the job done, and I will drive you home.”
As an example of the depth of Cruz’s unpopularity among his fellow senators, when he requested a pro forma second from just one of his colleagues so that there would be a roll-call vote on the pending question, Cruz was greeted with total silence. He was reduced to standing there alone on the Senate floor ignored, silently scorned, by a Senate that uniformly ignored his discomfort.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a man who is not unfamiliar with occasionally hostile reactions from his fellow senators, colorfully addressed Cruz’s singular unpopularity in the Senate. “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you,” said Graham, on the record, during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, when Cruz was still very much in that race.
Nor was Republican dislike of Cruz limited to his Senate colleagues. Former Republican House Speaker John Boehner called Cruz a “miserable son of a b——.”
Now, during Texas’s calamitous power failure in the midst of subfreezing temperatures, when millions of his constituents were without water, heat, electricity and, in many cases, food, Cruz boarded a plane to sunny, balmy Cancun, Mexico, and the Ritz-Carlton, where rooms, the Cruzes point out, are only $309 a night.
We learn that Cruz, a man who rejected Bill Cohen’s “people must first like you” political maxim, was exposed as friendless when the Houston police, stretched thin by the crisis and human tragedy in the city, revealed that Cruz had requested, through his office, a police escort at the airport to facilitate his trip to Mexico. Someone who disliked Cruz at the airline revealed that he had not, as he initially — and misleadingly — explained, done a U-turn and returned to Texas just after he, as Father of the Year, made sure his daughters were safe at the Ritz-Carlton, but that his original itinerary showed he would be in Cancun — and away from his suffering constituents — for nearly four days.
When you go out of your way to alienate, disparage and embarrass your colleagues, it’s a good bet they won’t be there to bail you out when you stumble and may even, instead of a helping hand, deliver an ungentle push.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.