Pat Bagley / Salt Lake Tribune

By Jason Stanford

It's a sign of the times that the dumbest answer in the presidential campaign so far yielded the deepest question. As usual, Ted Cruz started it.

In an interview with New York Times Magazine, Cruz talked himself into this corner: "It is quite likely that Kirk is a Republican and Picard is a Democrat." Chances are you know that those are fictional spaceship captains from Star Trek.

The question about whether the swashbuckling James T. Kirk was a Republican became a big enough deal that William Shatner (who, like Cruz, is Canadian, though Cruz also has U.S. citizenship) was pressed for a reaction. He called the whole thing "silly." When a television actor is the voice of reason in a political debate, we've got problems.

The question about whether you are a Kirk or Picard is more than just the ultimate nerd icebreaker, however. To hear Cruz tell it, the choice is between Kirk, the "passionate fighter for justice," and Jean Luc Picard, the "cerebral philosopher." This is no mere question of fanboy affiliation. It goes to how we should approach the Iran nuclear deal and ultimately our role as "the one indispensable nation."

Forget partisanship. When it comes to American leadership in a post-9/11 world, are we Kirk or Picard? Are we Kirk, leading with our gut, daring-do, and a disregard for the rules? Or are we Picard, respecting intergalactic law in the form of the Prime Directive, rational thought, and communication?

In Star Trek lore, Kirk became a legend by cheating on an unwinnable puzzle called the Kobayashi Maru. Designed as a character test, what it revealed in a young Kirk was a brazen disregard for the rules. If we lead like Kirk, we think the force of our personality can effect positive change. "Show the Iranians who's boss," Kirk would argue, "and they'll back down."

Picard, on the other hand, would never imagine he could dictate Iran's domestic power program. He'd seek a mutually beneficial diplomatic solution that disarms the Iranians without firing a shot. An American president who led like Picard would see war as a last resort, seeking instead to lower trade barriers (as with the Trans-Pacific Partnership), reopen embassies (as with Cuba), and using sanctions and diplomacy to avoid war and encourage stability (as with Iran).

You can see why Cruz thinks Picard is a Democrat. His style of leadership is methodical, requires compromise and listening, and can be frustrating to watch. Unfortunately for Republicans, Obama's international victories with the TPP, Cuba, and Iran are broadly popular with Americans.

The bad news for Democrats is that Kirk can be a heck of a lot more fun to watch. Kirk would never take the long view when he still had the option of flying off the handle. We've tried this before. A lot of emotionally gratifying if factually unsupported balderdash made going into Iraq intensely popular. And then it all went wrong.

You might think the smarter way to analyze American policy towards Iranian nuclear disarmament would be to look at the Senate hearing on the subject. You would be wrong. Long story short, the Republicans hated the deal before they read it. And in their typical display of loyalty, backbone and conviction, Democrats are mostly all over the place. It's politics as usual in Congress, telling us nothing useful about how the Iran deal reveals a new path for U.S. leadership in world affairs.

Partisanship is ossified and predictable in this country, making it hard for us to find our place in the world. Better to imagine us at the helm of a fictitious spaceship on a mission to explore a strange new world, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before. The choice between Kirk and Picard might seem dumb, but as a proxy for American leadership in the world it becomes much deeper.

So, how about it? Are we a Kirk or Picard?


© Copyright 2015 Jason Stanford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.