Politics' Leading Man
Ted Cruz just put on one hell of a show.
By Kyle Peterson – From the November 2013 issue
Pundits in washington simply cannot decide about Ted Cruz. Does the Texas senator’s demagoguery more resemble that of Joe McCarthy (the New Yorker), or Father Charles Coughlin (MSNBC)? Was his fight to defund Obamacare a political version of General Custer’s last stand, or was it General Pickett’s charge (separate columns, both in the Washington Post)? Will Cruz hold the country hostage like the Taliban (the Daily Beast) or remake his party in his image like Vladimir Lenin (the Atlantic)? Should we imagine him as Don Quixote, the clueless would-be knight tilting at windmills (the New York Times), or as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, the 10-story minion of evil from the 1984 film Ghostbusters (the Guardian)?
In fairness, the capital’s scriveners are used to one-dimensional characters and ready-made narratives, and Ted Cruz is a tough man to peg. He was born in bashful Canada, but raised in cocksure Texas. He drank from the gilded chalice of the Ivy League, but then spat out its bitter orthodoxy. He’s the thinking man’s Tea Partier, and the Tea Partier’s thinking man. He tromps through the country’s highest deliberative body in black cowboy boots and tosses off words like “Rawlsian” in a soft Southern drawl. He’s cool and unflappable under pressure, yet ambitious and—depending on your view—dangerous. “I think he is the most talented and fearless Republican politician I’ve seen in the last 30 years,” pronounced that shiny, hairless spheroid James Carville on television back in May. “I further think that he’s going to run for president and he’s going to create something.”
I ask the affable Texan about Cruzmania in a recent interview, reading from a list of quotations. “The Republican Barack Obama.” “Cruz is to public speaking what Michael Phelps was to swimming.” “Cruz is not just another whack job—he’s a highly intelligent whack job.”
He laughs politely—maybe a bit painfully—and then demurs. “I’ll confess, with all apologies to your chosen profession, I try to read very little of what the media says. There’s an awful lot of noise on both sides,” he begins. “In my view, I think most Americans could not possibly care less about some petty squabble between Washington politicians. What most Americans are interested in is leadership to solve the enormous fiscal and economic challenges facing this country.”
Fair enough in theory, perhaps. But the latter, that bold leadership, often leads to the former, that partisan sniping, as it has this very fall. For months, Cruz had urged Republicans in the House to use the power of the purse to defund Obamacare, and his exhortations were written off as empty rhetoric. But as the deadline to avert a government shutdown loomed, it began to look like he might actually be serious. Cruz refused to give in—and the District of Columbia freaked out.
Cruz is relatively new to the polis on the Potomac, but he has told the outline of his story to many crowds, and journalists have colored in additional details. His father Rafael was, as a teenager in Cuba, among the rebels fighting the Batista dictatorship. In 1956, Rafael was captured, imprisoned, and beaten bloody, losing two of his front teeth to a jailer’s boot. After his release, he secured a student visa to the U.S. and arrived with only a slide rule and $100, which had been sewn into his underwear. Rafael attended the University of Texas, and paid his way through college by working as a short-order cook. He didn’t have money for food, the story goes, so he tried to catch bites here and there at the restaurant and drink six glasses of milk during his shift. After earning a math degree, Rafael and his wife founded a company to process seismic data for the energy industry, which took them to oil-rich Alberta, Canada, where Ted was born in 1970. The company slumped with the oil market shortly thereafter, and the Cruzes moved back to Texas.
Ted was a precocious student and soon became involved with a group called the Free Enterprise Institute, which taught youth civics and economics. He memorized a mnemonic version of the Constitution—for instance, the first powers granted to Congress are T-C-C-N-C: taxes, credit, commerce, naturalization, and coinage—and wrote it out from memory for dazzled lunch groups. The lessons made an impression on the young man. “If you’d asked me as a 16- or 17-year-old kid, ‘What do you want to do in life?’ I would’ve said, ‘Fight for free-market principles and the Constitution,’” Cruz tells me. “I was kind of a geeky kid.” He graduated high school as valedictorian. One of his classmates told the Houston Chronicle, “We voted Ted most likely to become president.”
From there, Cruz built the kind of résumé that would make any aspiring conservative statesman (and many current ones) blush with envy: Princeton undergraduate, with a senior thesis on how the Ninth and Tenth Amendments limit federal power.
He was named North American debate champion, and that training doubtless helped sharpen his oratory for stage, screen, and airwave. Cruz and his partner David Panton participated in parliamentary debate, which rewards not so much depth of knowledge as wit and quick thinking. They once argued that a Florida law against animal sacrifice should be superseded by religious traditions permitting it. Another time, the resolution was that “Ted and Dave should be Time magazine’s men of the year”—and Cruz and Panton had to argue the case against. “A good debater is like a good elementary school teacher: he or she explains complicated concepts in a simple and interesting way,” Cruz explained in 1992 to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, which printed photos of the duo next to a caseful of trophies.
Then to Harvard law. To clerk for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (and later to serve as a pallbearer at the chief’s funeral). To the Bush campaign and the Florida recount. To become Texas solicitor general, argue before the Supreme Court eight times, and defend his state’s ability to execute a Mexican national who had gang-raped two teenagers, even though, upon arrest, the man had not been advised of his right to contact his consulate. Finally, to politics and a surprise win in a U.S. Senate race, his first run for elective office since student council, defeating the state’s incumbent lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst.
Cruz has taken to his role in the Senate, a body that operates on principles of seniority, with similar gusto, ruffling more than a few old birds’ feathers along the way. A month into his term, the Washington Times reported that the chamber had taken 11 votes, and that Cruz was the only senator on the losing side of every one. (Those votes, among other things, confirmed John Kerry as secretary of state and passed a Hurricane Sandy aid bill.) Cruz asked, according to news reports, to bring an unloaded firearm as a visual aid to a hearing on gun control, but he had to settle for a picture on a piece of poster board and a plastic pistol grip.
His so-called prosecutorial style of questioning has disturbed Democrats. His jabs at moderates and insistence that Obamacare could be defunded have rankled Republicans. “Everybody hates Ted Cruz,” Joan Walsh trumpeted in Salon, though no one could hear her above all the hair dryers. By the time Cruz appeared on Fox News Sunday on September 22, eight days before the expiry of government funding, his transition to persona non grata was complete. “As soon as we listed Ted Cruz as our featured guest this week,” host Chris Wallace told viewers, “I got unsolicited research and questions, not from Democrats but from top Republicans, to hammer Cruz.”
But still the sense lingered that it all might be a big, brazen bluff. The same day in his New York Times column, Ross Douthat, no slouch, described the defund effort as “an elaborate game of make-believe in which Republicans are supposed to pretend, for the sake of political leverage, that they’ll actually shut down the government….”
So much for that theory.
True to form, on the day of our interview, September 11, Cruz is introducing a resolution calling for a joint committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks. He’s waiting to be given time on the Senate floor to formally press his case, so he doesn’t want to leave the Capitol.
Which is how I find myself, after grabbing a complimentary Dr Pepper (“a great Texas product,” the sign proclaims) from the lobby fridge in the senator’s office, being marched to meet him in his “hideaway.” Every senator has one, a small space in the Capitol building itself, used for meetings or naps or strategy sessions when the chamber’s tight schedule doesn’t allow time for walks to and from the nearby office buildings. Hideaways are doled out based on seniority, though the process is generally hush-hush. (An exception came in the wake of Teddy Kennedy’s death, when his lavish real estate went back on the market.)
Cruz’s hideaway is on the third floor, or maybe the fourth—I think. A press secretary leads me from the decorated, public areas, through a maze of an unassuming corridors, up two bizarre, short, narrow staircases, to a set of innocuous, unmarked white doors. One opens to reveal an odd-shaped triangle room, built, it would seem, into the recesses of the Capitol’s architecture. It’s a bit bigger than a closet, though maybe not a walk-in, and the ceiling—it appears to be a portion of a dome—curves downward until it meets the floor, forming the far wall. There’s just enough room for a loveseat, a winged armchair, and a small desk. Grooves and shadows are painted on the walls, giving the appearance of paneling, and candelabra, equipped with those flame-shaped light bulbs, provide a cozy glow.
When the senator arrives—in a blue, pinstriped suit and, you’ll be pleased to hear, those trademark black boots—it’s all business, no chit-chat. He’s polished, very polished, no different one-on-one than when onstage at a Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering or the Conservative Political Action Conference. He organizes his thoughts as if writing a term paper, setting up a series of points with a thesis statement, and then taking them one at a time. He’s mastered the NPR pause, the dramatic silence so long that one begins to worry that the radio signal dropped. And when he gets on a roll on a subject, there’s no stopping him.
We talk about foreign policy. Cruz has positioned himself on the middle ground between the poles of John McCain internationalism and Rand Paul non-interventionism. He has said he would support military action to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, and he faults the Obama administration for being too dovish in pursuing radical Islamic terrorists. Yet he is critical of the president for pushing U.S. action in Syria simply to send a message about Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. “Now in my view, it is not the job of the U.S. military to send statements about international norms,” Cruz says. “It is the job of the U.S. military to fight and kill our enemies and to defend the national security interests of the United States.”
That said, he’s not shy about suggesting the U.S. throw its weight around. For instance, he supports forcing a UN Security Council vote condemning Assad. Russia would almost certainly veto such a resolution, but its support for the Syrian strongman would then be on the record. Cruz also suggests immediately canceling aid to Iraq until it agrees to halt Iranian planes flying through its airspace that are reportedly resupplying Assad.
We talk about his campaign to defund Obamacare. Critics argue that Cruz picked a fight on unfavorable terrain, that the Democratic Senate would never agree to any spending bill that pared back what many in their caucus view as a singular progressive achievement. And even if, by hook or by crook, Cruz could get Congress to pass such a measure, President Obama would certainly never sign it.
But Cruz starts from the premise that the odds of rolling back Obamacare, long as they are now, are about to get much, much worse. “On January 1, the subsidies kick in. And the president knows that in modern times, no major entitlement has ever been implemented and then unwound,” he says. “And so his strategy is to get as many Americans as possible hooked on the subsidies, hooked on the sugar.”
Further, he tells me he’s convinced that the rise of the Tea Party grassroots has changed the paradigm in politics. As examples, he cites his own election over the establishment pick, David Dewhurst, the outpouring of support for Rand Paul’s filibuster on drones, and the overwhelming opposition to involvement in Syria (Cruz says calls to his office ran 100 to 1 against). If millions of Americans stand up and fight, he says, if they demand that Obamacare be defunded, if they protest, and call, and donate, the strategy just might work. “The single biggest surprise I’ve had in the U.S. Senate in the eight months I’ve been here has been the defeatist attitude among Republicans,” he says. “I’ll tell you one thing I’m certain of: You lose 100 percent of the battles in which you begin by surrendering.”
If that pitch sounds familiar, it’s because Cruz has made it before, in nearly the exact same words, maybe dozens or hundreds of times. Weekly Standard anchor Andrew Ferguson writes in a recent profile that Cruz takes being disciplined—a D.C. term of art used to describe a man who sticks stubbornly to his message—to a whole new level:
He spoke of his father again. He mentioned the great divide in America, again, and was quoting Margaret Thatcher when I realized he was giving a speech again, except this time at close quarters, only a few feet away, in the back of a car. I made a quick calculation of how many vertebrae I would damage if I slipped the lock, opened the door, and did a tuck and roll onto the passing pavement.
There is a certain eeriness about asking a man a pointed question, looking him in the eye as he answers, and then seeing those words nearly verbatim in last week’s New York Times. On the first handful of occasions, voters might not take note. After that, Cruz risks coming off like one of those pullstring dolls, preprogrammed to say a dozen or so phrases.
But to some degree, this is the world journalists have created—and the bargain that modern politicians have accepted. A pol can spend an hour in a dank gymnasium answering questions from a hundred constituents, or he can spend an hour doing 12 five-minute interviews and reach a million. In exchange for the trappings of office, he is sentenced to repeat the same talking points in front of an endless line of television cameras—as Sisyphean a task as exists in the modern world. If the lesson of Mitt Romney’s disastrous “47 percent” or Stanley McChrystal’s Rolling Stone profile mean anything, it’s that a man’s guard is not to be dropped, even for a moment. Even in his own hideaway.
But the filibuster was something else entirely. Republicans in the House rallied around Cruz’s strategy, passing a bill to fund the government that did not include money for Obamacare. Cruz could not block the Democrat-controlled Senate from putting the money back in, but he could certainly make the media and the public take note. He took control of the Senate floor on September 24 at 2:41 p.m. and announced he would oppose Obamacare until he could no longer stand. Eyes in Washington began to roll, and an anonymous source familiar with such matters was quoted saying that Cruz would only last long enough to make Fox News in primetime. But again Cruz proved that he wasn’t bluffing. Hours passed, and grumpy Democratic senators were dragged from their beds to preside over the chamber. Republican reinforcements—most notably, kindred spirit and Utah Senator Mike Lee—asked the tired Texan meandering, 30-minute questions in order to give him short periods of rest. Day turned into night, and then back again. The knot in Cruz’s tie slipped steadily downward, and he began to look weary. He didn’t relinquish control of the chamber until he was required to by Senate rules, just past noon the following day.
No one—not even Ted Cruz—can stay on message for 21 straight hours. There were notable missteps, such as when Cruz thanked his staff for enduring the talkathon and compared it, in jest, to the Bataan death march. (He later apologized.) But by and large, Cruz, forced off his usual talking points, was revealed to be clever, and funny, and…human. He described watching the movie Rambo with his father, and his dad’s reaction to the torture scene. He read a bedtime story, Green Eggs and Ham, to his two young daughters, a moment that liberals mocked as theater even as they cooed at the photo showing the giggling pair, in matching pajamas, watching their dad on TV. He compared his fight to that of the rebel alliance in Star Wars, and he did an impression of Darth Vader. In a memorable exchange with Mike Lee at about 3 a.m., Cruz digressed to explain that Panama hats originated in Ecuador, a purple finch is really crimson, and an airplane’s “black box” is actually orange—just like how the penalty for not buying insurance under Obamacare is, according to the Supreme Court, actually a tax.
Whether the exercise will make any difference to the Republic remains to be seen. But it made all the difference in the world to Ted Cruz, who became, for however brief a moment, politics’ leading man: the most interesting, courageous, despised, influential, misunderstood, heroic, double-crossing, insane man in Washington, depending on the company one keeps. Journalists began to scribble madly about him, and the government shut down shortly thereafter, leaving public health officials at the CDC powerless to curb a massive outbreak of terrible “Cruz Control” puns. The talk around town was all Ted, as amateur Freuds emerged in public houses and cigar bars to parse his actions and debate his motivations.
There are, broadly speaking, three theories, which I’ll take from most cynical to most charitable:
Some see Cruz as a grandstander, a camera-chaser, a lover of the limelight. In versions of this story, he’s also a bumbler who ended up backed into a corner by his own loose rhetoric. Because Obama would never sign a bill gutting his eponymous healthcare law, there appeared to be little chance that GOP leadership would bring such a proposal up for a vote—much less that it would accrue enough support to pass the House. Thus, Cruz had a risk-free opportunity to preach the gospel, rile up the congregation, rail against the establishment, and build his profile. Except he proved a little too successful, and the stunt took on a life of its own. Under pressure, Speaker John Boehner passed such a bill, giving Cruz exactly what he had asked for. Powerless to push the legislation through the Senate, but unable to admit that he had sold the base a bill of goods that he could not deliver, Cruz was forced to filibuster to save face. Proponents of this view will inevitably shout here that it was a “fake” filibuster because Cruz could not actually block the vote. But as staff with the official Senate historian’s office told Politico: “There is no good definition of a filibuster and it depends on what you think a filibuster is.”
Others imagine Cruz as a grandmaster at the chessboard, content with losing a few pawns in order to advance toward checkmate. Maybe the defund campaign was an attempt to lowball the opening bid, such as when negotiating the price of a used car. Insisting initially on defunding Obamacare, the thought process might’ve gone, could make delaying it—a real victory for conservatives—look to Democrats like a worthy compromise. Or perhaps Cruz is playing the long game. Maybe the fight and filibuster were intended to keep Obamacare in the public eye, to force the Senate’s red-state Democrats to vote for it yet again, and to set the GOP up for victory in 2014.
Still others insist we take Cruz at his word, as a true believer. It is possible to imagine a scenario under which Obamacare is thwarted immediately. Democrats would be forced to act, for instance, if 10 million people—left, right, and center—marched to the White House with their acoustic guitars, singing protest songs like “The IPAB Blues.” The fact that they haven’t says less about Ted Cruz than it does about us. At the very least, Cruz provided conservatives with a moment of catharsis. He proved that the Republican Party still stands for something. He drove the left batty, and watching one’s enemies go bug-eyed with apoplexy, sputtering expletives and onomatopoeic sounds of outrage that can’t be transcribed by anyone other than Tom Wolfe (something along the lines of GHHAHK!)…well, that’s it’s own reward.
This last interpretation is the one that seems to have stuck in the hearts of the heartland. A.J. Spiker and Matt Moore, the chairmen of the state parties in Iowa and South Carolina, respectively, tell me that their voters are looking for leadership, and that Cruz provides it in spades. “It’s not focus grouping something or shaking up the Etch-a-Sketch,” Spiker says. “It’s really standing on principle. And people may not always agree with you 100 percent, but if you’re standing on principle, you’re going to earn a lot of respect from Republicans.” Most anything can happen between today and 2016, but Cruz now leads the field of potential contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, up eight percentage points since July, according to Public Policy Polling.
About this, Cruz, like everybody else on that list, is cagey. A journalist asking a politician whether he’s going to run for president is like a woman asking her husband whether a certain dress makes her look fat: There’s a script that must be followed, and assurance, not enlightenment, is the goal. For the husband: “Honey, you make Helen of Troy look like a slobbering, gangrenous weasel.” For the politician: “The thought that I might run for higher office had literally never occurred to me until you suggested it just now. I am focused, one Brazilian percent, on serving my constituents.”
But I ask anyway, and I try to be tricky about it. Several prominent outlets, including National Review, had reported that Cruz—in the most preliminary terms—had discussed a presidential bid. Did they need to issue a correction?
He doesn’t bite. “I cannot help what the media chooses to report. What I can tell you is that my focus is 100 percent on the U.S. Senate,” he says. “And I take very seriously my obligation to 26 million Texans, to come to work every day, and to stand up, and fight for them.”
That’s all well and good, senator. But come 2016, the other 288 million Americans just might decide they need you, too.