Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz: Loose Cannon or Libertarian Reformer?

The Texas senator might be just crazy enough to win the GOP presidential nomination.


Credit: Gage Skidmore

As they used to say in the old westerns, it was quiet out there-too quiet. So no one was really surprised when Ted Cruz announced to The Washington Post the weekend before the November election that his brief flirtation with civilized behavior was nearing its end.

For months, the Texas senator had abandoned his "the guy with dynamite strapped to his chest" persona, as one Republican political strategist describes it, to be a team player, crisscrossing the country to campaign for GOP candidates. No filibusters on the Senate floor to hold the federal budget hostage to the repeal of Obamacare; no fund­raising letters on behalf of Tea Party insurgents seeking to knock off what Cruz likes to call "squishy" Republican incumbents.

But secure in the knowledge that private tracking polls showed a Republican landslide on the way, Cruz unchained his not-so-inner werewolf. The first thing on the agenda for the new, Republican-led Senate, he said, should be hearings on President Barack Obama's "abuse of power, the executive abuse, the regulatory abuse, the lawlessness that sadly has pervaded his administration." To break up the monotony, Cruz added, the Senate will mount a human-wave attack against Obamacare, voting to repeal the whole thing and then, when the president vetoes their measure, attacking the law one provision at a time, forcing another 10 or 20 or a hundred or a thousand vetoes.

To much of official Washington and its media courtiers, this sounds like insanity. As one of Trent Lott's former staffers told the Post, Cruz "will certainly get the base jazzed up about what he's doing, but he won't get rid of the law."

If you're a presidential candidate, though, getting the base jazzed up is the whole point. The same weekend that Cruz announced his return to the warpath, The Des Moines Register published a poll showing that the single biggest issue motivating voters who supported Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (a Republican who a couple of days later would win an upset victory in her race for the U.S. Senate) was, by a large margin, "to get one step closer to repealing Obama-­care." Iowa also happens to be the site of the first 2016 presidential caucus. The man with the dynamite strapped to his chest will be there, and what explodes may be the chattering-class perception that Ted Cruz is too crazy to be considered a serious candidate for president.

Can a Wacko Bird Be Crazy Like a Fox?

Two and a half years ago, before Ted Cruz had even been elected to the Senate-when he was still just a couple of months past being, as he likes to joke, a candidate with 2 percent of the vote in polls with a 3 percent margin of error-the Republican strategist Mark McKinnon wrote an extraordinarily prescient piece calling Cruz "the Republican Barack Obama."

"A young, Harvard-educated lawyer, an intellectual with a compelling life story, the son of an American mother and an immigrant father, a practiced orator thrust into the national political spotlight, and buoyed by a cult of personality," McKinnon described him, hitting only one wrong note: "He'll have to pivot a bit to the middle while not stepping on the toes of those who brung 'em to the dance."

If Cruz pivoted, it was on an arc so tiny that it exists only in theoretical physics. More than a month before he took his seat, he was already squaring off against the Senate's Republican establishment and winning. Invited to a Senate Republican caucus lunch, he was dismayed to learn the party was going to back the U.N. Treaty on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the behest of tribal elders such as Bob Dole and Richard Thornburgh.

Wow, said Cruz, voters hate it when they think U.S. laws are going to be usurped by meddling U.N. bureaucrats, especially on stuff like abortion and homeschooling. He got to work. By the time dessert came around, party leaders were being confronted with mass defections, the treaty was headed for defeat, and Cruz had earned the undying enmity of much of the Republican leadership-most notably John McCain, who would later label Cruz a "wacko bird." Which, apparently, is the PG version of the epithets McCain uses in private. "He fucking hates Cruz," a McCain aide later told GQ.

The wacko bird label has stuck. Though polls vary widely according to who takes them and where, many of them show Cruz with high negatives.

"He can seem a little crazy," says one former senior official in the Bush administration, a Texan himself. "Frankly, I had an unfavorable impression of him personally. You read the stuff he says and he can seem a little grating. He comes across as shrill in large public settings.

"But now I've had some personal meetings with him and I've totally revised my opinion. One on one, he's personable, he's intelligent, and he's very, very genuine. I still disagree with him on some of his political positions and a lot of his strategy and tactics. But I have developed a lot of respect for him. He is definitely no yahoo."

Yahoos for Uncle Milton

Part of Cruz's yahoo image comes from his Tea Party-style positions. Many people still get jolted when a candidate calls not to reform or rein in the IRS but to abolish it.

But an even bigger component of the perception is that he spends too much time tilting furiously at windmills. The best example was his campaign in late 2013 to block a continuing budget resolution unless Democrats agreed to delay or defund Obamacare, spearheaded by Cruz's 21-hour filibuster (which included readings from a pair of unlikely soulmates, Ayn Rand and Dr. Seuss).

Cruz's efforts led to a 16-day government shutdown before Republican leaders-many of whom hadn't wanted a showdown in the first place-blinked. The Washington consensus was that the shutdown was pointless, that Obama would have admitted to being a Kenyan-born Muslim terrorist before giving up the prize legislative achievement of his presidency.

That argument, however, supposes that Cruz became a senator to broker conciliation and compile an impressive legislative box score. That's a fundamental misunderstanding of the senator's strategic goals.

"He believes that mobilizing the public and doing symbolic things that help let the public know he and the party are trying to advance a conservative agenda are as important, maybe more important, than behind-the-scenes dealing on Capitol Hill," says another former Bush administration official who observes Cruz closely. "If you look at his record, he's clearly more interested in political organizing than trying to rack up a big score of bills passed."

Or, as Cruz often says, quoting Margaret Thatcher: "First you win the argument, then you win the vote."

Cruz has been winning arguments all his life. The son of a penniless refugee who fled Cuban communism, struck it rich in the oil business, then lost everything in the 1980s bust, he was largely educated in church schools. But when he was 13, his parents enrolled him in a Houston after-school program run by the Free Enterprise Education Center.

The reading list included strict constructionist histories of the Constitution and economic texts by Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard, names Cruz still flings around today to the inevitable bafflement of reporters. (In his impromptu 2012 victory speech after winning the Republican nomination for the Senate, he saluted Milton Friedman, whose 100th birthday it was: "a true champion for liberty, and we are walking in Uncle Milton's footsteps.")

Cruz honed and expanded those arguments, first at Princeton, where he was a champion intercollegiate debater, then at Harvard Law School. His intellect was keen enough that both the conservative legal scholar Robert George at Princeton and the fierce civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz at Harvard remember him as among their best students ever. After clerking with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and brief stints in private practice and the George W. Bush administration, he snagged a job as Texas' solicitor general.

In some states, the solicitor general is simply the attorney general's chief grunt, churning out briefs in lawsuits over mineral and timber rights. In Texas, the office functioned more like a right-wing version of Nader's Raiders, trolling for legal vehicles to advance conservative legal doctrine. Much of Cruz's work didn't involve Texas at all. Instead he was filing friend-of-the-court interventions in cases like Louisiana's defense of a law making the rape of a child a capital offense.

He argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won five of them. Perhaps the most legally significant-certainly the one that provides the most personal insight into Cruz's single-minded pursuit of ideology over political alliances or even friendships-was Medellin v. Texas.

In 1993, an 18-year-old Mexican citizen named Jose Medellin and several pals spent an hour raping and murdering two young teenage girls who had blundered into their gang's initiation ceremony. The case seemed open and shut: Medellin was turned in by his own brother and, after getting his Miranda warning, confessed anyway. He even bragged he had "virgin blood" on his underwear. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

But in 2003, as Medellin's appeals continued to wind through the courts, the Mexican government protested that, under a treaty between the United States, Mexico, and 163 other countries, Medellin should have been allowed to contact his native country's consulate after his arrest. Eventually the World Court agreed and ordered the United States to halt the execution. The Bush administration agreed.

Cruz didn't. Arguing the case as a matter of separation of powers-Congress had never passed any laws implementing the consular-access treaty-he won a 6-3 victory in the Supreme Court. He beat the United Nations, he beat the Justice Department, he beat the president of the United States, he beat a fellow Texas Republican in whose presidential campaign he had worked.

Cruz moved his challenge of the state's Republican establishment from the courtroom to the political arena four years later, when he launched an insurgent campaign for the Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchinson. In a race that still puzzles Texas political analysts, he somehow leveraged his mastery of the esoterica of constitutional law into a murderous 14-percentage-point victory over Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the protege of Gov. Rick Perry, who in turn was the protege of George W. Bush.

"Cruz is not my cup of tea, stylistically," says veteran political operative Roger Stone, who has worked with both the Republican and Libertarian parties. "But he's very smart-legally smart and politically smart. And the guy's got brass balls."

President Wrecking Ball

No one who knows him doubts that the 44-year-old Cruz is preparing for a presidential race. He has formed political action committees, and his forceful support for the underdog candidacy of Joni Ernst has made him a regular visitor to Iowa, where the momentum of an early primary victory has previously carried Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and many others to a presidential nomination.

Many Republicans think he's moving too fast. "Serving a third of a Senate term is not enough experience to be president of the United States," says one Texas Republican who's had dealings with Cruz.

Others think he needs to build a positive side to his political resume, that voters will want something more than a political wrecking ball. "He's never been a governor, and Republicans usually like that, because it shows you know how to administer an office," says another former Bush administration official who follows Cruz closely.

"So it might be good for him to have some legislative projects he can point to. The problem with doing stuff in Congress, though, is it requires nibbling around the edges-things like getting rid of the medical-device tax [a 2.3 percent excise tax that helps fund Obamacare] that Obama might actually go along with. And I don't think Cruz is a nibble-around-the-edges kind of guy."

More likely, Cruz will stick to his rampaging ways, or even accelerate them. Stone believes the hearings Cruz wants on the conduct of Obama's presidency will quickly morph into a full-fledged impeachment campaign, possibly focused on the president's proposals to use sweeping executive action on immigration.

"There's no constituency among elected officials in Washington for impeachment," the consultant Stone acknowledges. "But there's a very big one outside the Beltway. I think Cruz can become the tail that wags the dog."

Whether that's good or not depends on what breed of dog you want. Like many Tea Party warriors, Cruz has a significant libertarian streak. It's most prominent on economics. Unlike many Republicans, he's not pro-business but pro-market. He opposes Luddite restrictions on the energy industry, but he also regularly weighs in against subsidies and protectionist regulation.

"Crony capitalists are standing in the way of common-sense reforms, whether it's abolishing the Export-Import Bank or keeping the Internet tax-free forever and unconstrained by job-killing regulations," he wrote in a Republican agenda for 2015 published in USA Today in October. From auditing the Federal Reserve to simpler, flatter taxes and a balanced budget, there's little in that agenda to offend anybody who believes in shrinking government intervention in the economy.

The single but very large exception: immigration. Favoring a bigger wall along the Rio Grande and more Border Patrol agents to walk it, Cruz is among the most unrelenting immigration hawks in Congress. He appears to see no contradiction between his close-to-literal war on immigrants and the obvious pride he takes in telling stories of how his Cuban-born father worked for 50 cents an hour washing dishes in an Austin greasy spoon while learning English.

The bag is more mixed when it comes to foreign policy and national security. On the plus side, Cruz expressed unease about the breadth of government snooping revealed by Edward Snowden's leaks about the National Security Agency. And he did furious battle with Attorney General Eric Holder during a Senate hearing while the administration was playing dodgeball over its policies on using drones as judges, jurors, and executioners.

Dragging Holder from the tangled thickets of legal verbiage in which he sought to conceal himself, Cruz demanded a direct answer: "In your legal judgment, does the Constitution allow a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil [who poses no imminent threat to others] to be killed by a drone?" When Holder began hemming and hawing over "appropriateness," Cruz just shook his head. "I find it remarkable that in that hypothetical, which is deliberately very simple, you are not able to give a simple, one-word answer: no," he told the abashed attorney general.

But Cruz at times has seemed bellicose on the subject of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and he has mocked Obama for not taking a tougher line over Russian intervention in the Ukraine-though, he has been careful to add, "no rational person is interested in a shooting war between the United States and Russia." In short, he seems to be trying to triangulate somewhere between the Republican Party foreign policy poles established by the relatively noninterventionist Rand Paul and the quick-draw John McCain.

When it comes to civil liberties, Cruz has shown a no doubt sincere but also very clever propensity for framing the issues in a way that will appeal to the religious right, a force that every Texas politician must seriously reckon with. (And a community from which Cruz, to some degree, sprang; not only was his early education mostly from Christian schools, but his father, after his oil business tanked, became an evangelical preacher.)

Cruz opposes abortion but typically engages the issue as a matter of conscience, that those who believe it is murder shouldn't have to fund it through taxpayer-assisted abortions or Obamacare insurance mandates. He inevitably portrays gun control measures as a threat to the Bill of Rights (as indeed they are). And he was one of the first and hardest to jump on an attempt this fall by Houston prosecutors to subpoena the sermons of ministers urging repeal of a city gay-rights law.

As outrageous as the prosecutors' actions were (which indifferent liberals would have seen more clearly if the sermons concerned, say, sanctuary for illegal immigrants), it's also true that Cruz is uncomfortable with the emerging American consensus for gay equality in the eyes of the law. It's one thing for Cruz to argue, as he often does, that defining marriage has traditionally been left to the states, and that court decisions to the contrary are "judicial activism at its worst." It seems unlikely that the 14th Amendment was written to enable same-sex marriages and it just took judges 150 years to read the fine print. But when Cruz declares to a crowd that "if ever there was an issue on which we should come on our knees to God about, it is preserving marriage of one man and one woman"-as he did at Texas' state Republican convention in Fort Worth in June-it suggests his attachment to the issue is motivated by more than constitutional niceties.

It may also be worth noting that as little as three years ago, there were hardly any mainstream politicians-certainly not Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton-to champion this issue from the opposite side. Similar arguments could be made about other Cruz positions. Some libertarian-leaning Republicans believe Cruz could grow in their direction.

"Libertarian conservatives like me should certainly not be hostile to Cruz," said Williamson Evers, an assistant secretary of education during the Bush administration who has had regular contact with Cruz's office on education issues. "He's somebody we can work with."

Whether that opportunity will soon be at hand remains to be seen. As much as Cruz wants to run for president, and as much of a splash as he's made in national politics in a very short time, his campaign faces some obstacles that could keep it from getting off the ground.

Among the biggest: the presidential ambitions of another Texas Republican, Rick Perry, who despite his goofball performance in 2012 remains extraordinarily popular among the state's party members.

"Texas is a big state, and we're a big party, but I don't know if we're big enough to support two presidential candidates," says one senior Republican. "Inevitably they're going to compete for some of the same funding and the same support."

There are three rival power centers in the Texas Republican Party: the Bush family establishment, the Tea Party mutineers, and the Bible-wielding religious right. Cruz has solid footing in two of those factions, the Tea Party and the religious right, but he's anathema to the Bush loyalists. "They'll never accept him," declares Stone. "When he beat their lieutenant governor favorite son, he was written out of the book of life."

But Perry has problems of his own, most notably a felony indictment for abuse of power in connection with his efforts to force the resignation of an Austin prosecutor who refused to resign after she was convicted and jailed for drunk driving. The indictment appears to have been nakedly political, but Perry has yet to convince a judge of that. If the case drags on-or gets worse-it could cripple his hopes.

That would certainly be a fortuitous turn of events for Cruz, which perhaps makes it likely to happen. From Hutchinson's unexpected decision to abandon her seat to the coincidental timing of the Senate's consideration of the U.N. treaty, good fortune often smiles on him at just the right moment. "On top of everything else, Cruz is just plain lucky," observes Stone. "I wouldn't bet against him."

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin (glenngarvin@hotmail.com) is a columnist at the Miami Herald.