Politics are important. They can also be silly. Case in point: The Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a story on August 9 about how the Beto O’Rourke campaign logo resembles the packaging for Whataburger Spicy Ketchup. As is journalistic practice, the paper approached the Ted Cruz campaign for a comment, and spokesperson Emily Miller offered up the following:
“Unlike the spicy ketchup, when Texans unwrap the O’Rourke packaging, they are definitely not going to like what they see underneath. He’s like a Triple Meat Whataburger liberal who is out of touch with Texas values.”
The response seems like a good-natured jab—until you try to parse what it actually means. Then the message turns cryptic. (That’s true even beyond the first sentence’s misleading structure, which suggests that the spicy ketchup has unwrapped the O’Rourke packaging and liked what it saw underneath. We’re liberal with our spicy ketchup, but we didn’t realize the condiment voted blue. Or could unwrap a person’s packaging.) Was the Cruz campaign saying that O’Rourke—his opponent—is like Whataburger, and that therefore Cruz is anti-Whataburger? Did the spokesperson intend to say that O’Rourke is like Whataburger, and Whataburger is good, therefore O’Rourke is good? Miller did not respond to a request for comment from Texas Monthly, which left us with only one way to understand the potential implications of the Whataburger-themed slam: digging in.
Option 1: Beto O’Rourke may be a liberal, but he is also like Whataburger in some ways
This would be a friendly thing to say about a political opponent—if we lived in an era of friendly politics. Still, a surface read of the statement does seem to indicate “my opponent bears some similarities to a popular menu item at the Texas institution Whataburger,” even if that’s not the sort of sentiment we’d expect. The logical read goes like this: Whataburger is well liked, very good, and extremely Texan. O’Rourke is like a very large sandwich at Whataburger. Therefore, O’Rourke is well liked, very good, and extremely Texan.
This optimistic hypothesis is ultimately taken down by the rest of Miller’s statement: “Out of touch with Texas values” is certainly a slam. The two contradictory meanings of this sentence suggest that this can’t be what the Cruz campaign actually meant. Unless, of course, they were trying to suggest that a Triple Meat Whataburger is also out of touch with Texas values, which would be blasphemy.
Option 2: A “Triple Meat Whataburger liberal” is like a “limousine liberal”
It’s unlikely that Cruz meant to impugn Whataburger while running for statewide office in Texas. That’d be a totally unforced error, akin to bashing Troy Aikman or H-E-B. Still, the way the simile is constructed, it’s very clear that “Triple Meat Whataburger” is being used as a modifier on “liberal.”
There is a tradition in American politics of using nouns as modifiers to describe liberals. It’s even a tradition that Cruz has engaged in recently, as when he described Stephen King as a “limousine liberal.” The phrase, much like “Hollywood liberal,” is intended to cast the subject as out of touch with the common man and snooty. (Both Cruz and O’Rourke have arrived at their campaign events in pickup trucks.)
It’s possible, though unlikely, that Cruz’s spokesperson was using “Triple Meat Whataburger liberal” in a similar way. “This guy is so unlike the common Texan, he orders a Triple Meat Whataburger at the drive-thru!” would be the implication here. That doesn’t make much sense, even if a Triple Meat Whataburger is one of the pricier items on the menu—we’re still looking at about $8, with fries and a Coke included. “This guy spends an incrementally larger amount of money on his burger than the average Texan” is a thoroughly mediocre slam, and casting aspersions on an extra-large Whataburger menu item, sure to be favored by some voters, seems like a poor political decision.
Option 3: There’s too much liberal meat on this guy
Most likely, by comparing O’Rourke to the biggest sandwich on the Whataburger menu, the Cruz campaign was trying to say that he’s a giant liberal. So liberal, there are three big ol’ liberal patties on this guy! That’s too liberal for Texas—how would you even fit a burger that size into your mouth? You’d have to use a knife and a fork, and at that point, you’re basically a Californian. Texans don’t want a liberal burger that big, if they want one at all. This convoluted explanation makes sense, at least as a way to say that O’Rourke is not like Whataburger in any sense other than that his liberalism, like the chain’s largest burger, is very big.
Despite the fact that this is perhaps the least intuitive read on the statement, we’re going to assume that this is what the Cruz campaign intended. The Whataburger-themed insult is a decidedly tricky thing to pull off, especially in Texas, and the Cruz campaign’s attempt was more of a head-scratcher than a burn—especially when “Whatachicken” was right there for the taking.