Ted Cruz, The Barn Burner

In 2013, the audacious upstart shut down the government on a hopeless quest to stop the President's signature policy. Love him or hate him, he is a vision of the future

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Marco Grob for TIME

And Cruz’s brash gambit—which followed earlier clashes with veteran Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein as well as former Senator Chuck Hagel (now the Secretary of Defense)—made it pretty clear that Cruz isn’t planning on a long career in the Senate. No working his way up the ladder rung by rung to a lofty chairmanship. That’s the old way of doing things, and it requires at least a modicum of deference to seniority and an ability to address one’s bitterest enemies as “my good friend.” For that matter, the whole idea of the Senate as a deliberative body that’s slightly above the fray is passé, Cruz told me. “The Senate has become the battleground for the fight to turn this country around,” he said.

Instead, Cruz—like his fellow Tea Party freshmen Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida—appears to be eyeing a path blazed by his nemesis, President Obama, in which the Senate is just a pit stop in a grander race. Though Cruz disagrees with nearly everything the President believes in, he appreciates Obama as a political tactician. “I respect President Obama as a man of deep principles, who is clearly willing to pay a steep political price for those ­principles—as he is doing with Obama­care,” Cruz said solemnly as the December sun slanted through his office windows in a downtown Houston skyscraper. “I also believe those principles are wrong and harmful for the country.”

When it comes to tactics, however, Obama is “absolutely” a role model, Cruz said. In his Senate race against an overwhelming favorite, Cruz followed the battle plan laid out by Obama’s 2008 upset of Hillary Clinton. He even required his top staff members to study the campaign memoir written by Obama strategist David Plouffe.

But Cruz demurred when asked if he intends, like Obama, to skedaddle from the Senate at the first possible opportunity. He was happy to talk about the sort of candidate the Republicans should nominate in 2016. “Look back over the last 40 years. Every time Republicans nominated a candidate who ran as a strong conservative, we’ve won. Every time we ran as moderate, Establishment Republicans, we lost.” When I asked if anyone on the list of frequently mentioned ­candidates—Rubio, Paul, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker … Ted Cruz—fit that bill, he answered, “I think it’s too early to say. As a voter in 2016, I intend to vote in the primary for whoever is standing up and leading the fight for economic freedom.”

After that, he talked about how fervent he feels about the fight for economic freedom.

Cruz at the Taste of Texas steak house with his wife Heidi and daughters Caroline, 5, and Catherine, 3.

Marco Grob for TIME

Cruz at the Taste of Texas steak house with his wife Heidi and daughters Caroline, 5, and Catherine, 3.

Past and Future

Should Cruz and others on the right manage to turn the 2016 Republican primary into a test of conservative purity, he will be fighting on highly favorable ground. If conservative theorists could build a cyborg in a lab vacuum-sealed against the slightest contamination by heterodox ideas, the result would be Rafael Edward Cruz. I say that because it is very nearly Cruz’s life story.

The lab was called the Free Enterprise Education Center. It was the creation of Rolland Storey, a wealthy Texas conservative who sought to identify promising young minds and mold them in an atmosphere of foundational conservative texts. Storey’s acolytes read Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and Frédéric Bastiat. They memorized long passages of the Constitution and toured Rotary and Kiwanis luncheons dazzling audiences by reciting entire sections verbatim. They were like Spartans of the conservative mind, and Cruz was their Leonidas—winner of the annual speech contest four years in a row. (The topic was always freedom.)

These lessons lodged so firmly, Cruz says at every opportunity, because he had already learned from his father about the nature of tyranny, under the repressive regime of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. His father’s experience as a young ­Cuban—a boy soldier in Fidel Castro’s revolution who came to be deeply disillusioned by Castro’s new brand of ­oppression—convinced both father and son that government is best reined in. Cruz shudders to imagine his life if his father had not had a land of liberty to escape to in 1957. “It’s an incredible blessing to be the child of an immigrant who fled oppression,” Cruz offered. “It makes me appreciate how precious and fragile liberty is.”

At Princeton—where he became a national debating champion—his mentor was the brilliant natural-law theorist Robert George. He wrote his thesis on the Ninth and 10th Amendments—the ones that fence in the federal government. His time at liberal Harvard Law School was like a missionary voyage, Cruz’s father jokes, and friends from those years recall a bright young man itching for political arguments. After Harvard, he clerked for the conservative appeals-court judge Michael Luttig, then served as a law clerk for U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist. It was the perfect preparation. George Will, the dean of conservative columnists, sized up Cruz and pronounced his background “as good as it gets.”

Democrats may harbor similar feelings, for they’ve made Cruz a favorite target, comparing him to the run-amok Senator Joseph McCarthy of communist witch-hunting fame. “There is an effort to demonize Ted Cruz,” Carvin says, “not only because he is a talented and effective advocate but because the other side thinks he has higher aspirations.” They’re right about his ambition. But Cruz is no McCarthy, who melted away in an alcoholic haze. No: Cruz is a more formidable foe, one built to last. He knows the difference between risk and recklessness, and his drink of choice is Dr Pepper.

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