They don’t teach this stuff in eighth-grade civics class: a freshman U.S. senator from the minority party provokes a shutdown of the federal government in a hopeless quest to undo the President’s signature legislative achievement. The nation flirts with a potentially disastrous default while the populace looks on in disgust. And when the instigator tries to explain himself during one of the longest speeches in Senate history, somehow he ends up reciting Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.
The faux filibuster to “defund Obamacare” waged by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas made him so unpopular with his fellow Republicans (Democrats scarcely concealed their delight) that they might have made him walk the plank—except that the GOP’s approval ratings were sinking so fast that even the plank was underwater.
Plus, anyone steeped in Washington politics could see that Cruz was already dead from this massive self-inflicted wound.
But to Cruz, 42, that is precisely the reason he believes he is winning. The young barn burner is convinced that “official Washington”—his umbrella term covering the old guard of both parties—is hopelessly out of touch with the voters, so he wears the scorn like a crown of laurel. If the Establishment says he’s finished, he concludes, he must be making headway. If they’re so sure he’s wrong, he must be doing something right.
“Changing Washington isn’t easy, and we shouldn’t be surprised when official Washington fights back,” he told Time in an end-of-year interview. “People who were used to making decisions in smoky rooms behind closed doors don’t know how to operate in today’s world, where people have direct access to information, can form their own opinions and know how to make their views heard.”
Since the shutdown, his story has taken yet another twist. At the moment when Cruz was thought to be in the greatest peril, the unlikely figure of President Obama further bolstered his confidence in eventual success. The insurance exchanges that are key to Obama’s health care reforms were launched—with great fanfare—via lead balloon. Two months of fiasco and snafu thoroughly scuffed up the Obamacare brand and shifted the spotlight away from Cruz’s brinkmanship. He now says that his seeming defeat was actually a victory. “We did not ultimately succeed in defunding Obamacare,” he allowed. “But the fight succeeded in elevating attention to the problems.”
The Shutdown Gambit
Voters and historians will write the final verdict on Cruz’s rogue government shutdown. The fact that he was able to pull it off over the objections of Republican leaders is enough to make him stand out in a dizzying year of factional politics. Cruz is this year’s harbinger of an emerging reality of power politics, one that favors audacious upstarts and punishes pragmatism. Love him or hate him, Cruz is a vision of the future. In this new order, seniority and collegiality count for far less than moxie and a passionate Twitter following. This little-known lawyer, in his first campaign for elective office, knocked off one of the most powerful and experienced pols in Texas to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, and within a matter of months, he had backed the Speaker of the House into a corner.
Cruz, the former solicitor general of Texas (an appointed position), picked up a Tea Party torch in the 2012 race to fill the seat of retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. The formidable lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, had money and endorsements on his side, but Cruz had a cadre of intense supporters who knew how to leverage new forms of communication. He won going away. When Cruz arrived in Washington, he found the GOP dazed amid the wreckage of Mitt Romney’s loss. The old guard counseled moderation, but Cruz and his renegade soul mate, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, suggested cranking the ideological amplifier to 11.
Their idea—which received little support from Republican leaders—was to press House Republicans to block payments related to health care reform. “Repeal it” was a moribund message, given Obama’s re-election. “Defund it” could fill the void.
Everyone knew the President would never sign a spending resolution that gutted his pet reforms. And Washington veterans recalled the last time Republicans pushed a Democratic President into a government shutdown. It was 1995, and it cost them badly.
Cruz and Lee took it to the grassroots, pushing their plan on television, in conservative blogs, on the radio, in speeches—and soon they were counting some 2 million supporters registered at DontFundIt.com. “What the American people did was breathtaking,” Cruz marveled. “They burned up the phone lines” to Congress. The Cruz-backed resolution passed the House and stalled in the Senate, just as everyone had predicted. The government closed. The possibility of a default on the federal debt loomed. And after Cruz had his Sam-I-Am moment and the country realized he had no exit strategy, the whole thing fizzled away.
Until someone finds an amplifier that goes up to 12, anyway.
Coming at the end of a rookie year in which Cruz also played a role in blocking new gun-control measures and challenging the Administration on the lethal use of drones, the shutdown episode left many Republicans with mixed emotions. “I think Ted’s a very talented, principled conservative and heartily support his efforts, but it was a terribly stupid thing to force the shutdown,” says Michael Carvin, a leading conservative lawyer in Washington, whose former firm gave Cruz one of his first jobs.
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.
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.