Twenty minutes into his address announcing his run for the White House, Sen. Ted Cruz made the first concrete promise of his campaign. “[I]magine in 2017 a new president signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare,” he said. The next day the Texas senator announced he’d be signing up for Obamacare. “We’ll be getting new health insurance and we’ll presumably do it through my job with the Senate, and so we’ll be on the federal exchange with millions of others on the federal exchange,” Cruz said.
As you’d expect, this gave the political Internet a good laugh. On Twitter, National Journal’s Ron Fournier had a few jokes—“Breaking: @BarackObama nominates @tedcruz to head the #IRS. Cruz accepts. ‘Guy’s gotta work.’ ”—while liberal websites like Daily Kos crowed over the irony. “Ted Cruz becomes the newest Obamacare customer,” read one headline.
Conservatives aren’t happy with the schadenfreude, but you can’t blame the reaction. Cruz built his career around hating the Affordable Care Act. It’s funny that just hours after making Obamacare repeal the centerpiece of his campaign, the presidential hopeful is now on the federal exchange with millions of other Americans who need health insurance.
But despite his most vocal critics, Cruz slipping on a political banana peel doesn’t make him a hypocrite. For starters, this is a function of circumstances. After Heidi Nelson Cruz, his wife, took leave from her job at Goldman Sachs, the Cruz family lost its health insurance. And under an amendment sponsored by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, Cruz has to use the federal exchange to obtain his health insurance, even though the government will pay the majority of his premiums.
The other options are to pay for health services à la carte, or cover the full cost of COBRA coverage, which—if you’ve ever been in this situation—are expensive options, even for families as wealthy as the Cruzes. Among all the choices, Obamacare is the best one. And then there’s the general principle: “I believe we should follow the text of every law, even laws I disagree with,” Cruz told CNN, following up with a pro forma dig at the president. “It’s one of the real differences—if you look at President Obama and the lawlessness, if he disagrees with a law he simply refuses to follow it or claims the authority to unilaterally change.”
The senator is correct. For the most part, individual behavior is distinct from political belief and institutional preference. A billionaire taking tax breaks isn’t a hypocrite for wanting higher rates and more social services; neither is a climate activist who flies around the world, or a rich liberal who sends his kids to private schools but wants more money for public education.
There are limits to this idea. It is hypocritical to oppose drugs but indulge for yourself, or, a little differently, to value labor but exploit unpaid work. But for most ideological concerns, the political and the personal are separate spheres that only occasionally overlap. To think otherwise is to fall into the dangerous—if widespread—belief that you can make political change through personal consumption or other atomized actions.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to live your political ideals or that your personal beliefs (secular, religious, or otherwise) shouldn’t reflect on your politics. But it’s unreasonable and unfair to expect a one-to-one correspondence, especially on something like health care reform. Cruz can take advantage of Obamacare to get health insurance, and also—as he said—believe that “it is killing millions of jobs in this country and … has caused millions of people to lose their insurance, to lose their doctors and to face skyrocketing insurance premiums.” He’s wrong, but that’s a separate story.
If there’s a problem with Cruz and Obamacare, it’s not hypocrisy, it’s empathy. Insurance under the ACA is far from perfect. It’s pricey even with subsidies, and less comprehensive than many employer plans. But the actual comparison isn’t with an ideal, it’s with the pre-reform status quo, in which millions of Americans had either no insurance or junk plans that were worse than useless in an emergency. Against that alternative, Obamacare is a huge improvement. Even now, as health reporter Sarah Kliff writes for Vox, “[I]f Cruz surveyed the market for individual insurance, he’d probably learn pretty quickly that the exchange is almost certainly his best option.”
Having found himself in the same bad situation as millions of less fortunate Americans, one would hope that Cruz would now see the value of something like Obamacare, which puts a higher floor on material deprivation. Instead, the best odds are for Cruz to take a page from Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner. “In his successful 2014 campaign for Senate,” writes Bloomberg’s David Weigel, “Gardner repeatedly talked about the family plan he’d held onto until it was scrapped for not meeting the ACA’s standards.” Indeed, he turned it into a TV spot. “I got a letter saying that my family’s plan was canceled,” said Gardner in the ad. “Three hundred and thirty-five thousand Coloradans had their plans canceled, too.”
Cruz still wants to end the law, and if he’s as theatrical as he seems, expect his Obamacare problems—real, imagined, or exaggerated—to make their way to a stump speech near you.