Let me take a moment to praise Ted Cruz. The Republican presidential candidate, near-universally loathed in Washington, spotted a clutch of Donald Trump supporters outside an Indiana rally and walked across the street to talk to them.
What happened next was a disaster, a gargantuan gaffe, pundits declared. Talk to people who don’t agree with you? Who does that?
Practically no politician takes such a risk anymore, which is why I give Cruz credit for his ethos, if not his execution. The New York Times described the encounter:
“What do you like about Donald Trump?” he asked.
“Everything,” said the man in the sunglasses, who later refused to give his name.
When the protester mentioned the Second Amendment, Mr. Cruz said he had defended gun rights in front of the Supreme Court. The man appeared unimpressed.
Cruz also pointed out that Trump has expressed sympathies with gun-control advocates like former President Bill Clinton. The protester wasn’t buying it, which was the first sign that this confrontation would be a metaphor for the times: Americans are sorting geographically, economically, and even factually. The truth is disposable. Opinions are cemented.
When he mentioned immigration, Mr. Cruz was ready with a bit of opposition research.
“May I ask you something?” the Texas senator said. “Out of all the candidates, name one who had a million-dollar judgment against them for hiring illegal immigrants. Name one. Donald Trump.”
“Self-funding,” the man replied.
“O.K.,” Mr. Cruz said, “so you like rich people who buy politicians?”
Here again, Cruz is right: Trump can’t possibly deliver on his promise to end illegal immigration with a giant wall. He won’t deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. In fact, some past statements put Trump in the pro-amnesty camp.
The man confronting Cruz believes Trump is self-funded because he trusts Trump, who repeatedly claims he is paying for his own campaign. It’s a lie. Trump solicits, accepts, and spends donations from supporters—like every other politician.
“Sir, with all respect,” Cruz said, “Donald Trump is deceiving you. He is playing you for a chump.”
The man ignored him to make a conjecture of his own: “You’ll find out tomorrow. Indiana don’t want you.”
Mr. Cruz turned toward the cameras, as if making a closing argument in court.
“A question that everyone here should ask,” he began.
“Are you Canadian?” the man interjected.
Boom! Roars of laughter could be heard all over Washington, from the lobbying shops on K Street to the offices of GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. The man whom former House Speaker John Boehner called “Lucifer in the flesh,” got burned with one of Trump’s patented attacks, repeated so often that an anonymous supporter could slip it between a pause in Cruz’s talking points.
Confession: I got a kick out of it, too. Then I thought: What if more politicians wandered away from their sympathetic crowds and sycophantic staffs to engage directly with people? People who might not vote for them. People who would never vote for them. People who could help challenge their biases and hold them accountable.
I recalled when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was confronted by Black Lives Matters advocates.
"Look, I don't believe you change hearts," Clinton said, arguing that the movement can't change deep-seated racism. "I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You're not going to change every heart. You're not. But at the end of the day, we could do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them, to live up to their own God-given potential."
Clinton didn’t win the activists over; they criticized her afterward. But the exchange, videotaped with permission of her campaign, was an extraordinary example of speaking truth to power—and power speaking back. Who does that?