The biggest nut in this year's crop is Senator Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz (R-TX). This loon is too crazy for The Geezer (R-AZ) and the junior senator from Texas has been dubbed a "Wacko Bird" for all of his nonsensical posturing and blustering. It is impossible to make any of this stuff up. A better Cubano alternative would have been Ricky Ricardo (portrayed by the late Desi Arnaz) on "The Lucy Show" in the 1950s. Ricky would bluster at his wife (TV and real life): "Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do." Ditto for the Wacko Bird. If this is (fair & balanced) political comedy, so be it.
Ted Cruz: The Distinguished Wacko Bird From Texas
By Jason Zengerle
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
It's hard for Ted Cruz to be humble. Part of the challenge stems from his résumé, which the Texas senator wears like a sandwich board. There's the Princeton class ring that's always on his right hand and the crimson gown that, as a graduate of Harvard Law School, he donned when called upon to give a commencement speech earlier this year. (Cruz's fellow Harvard Law alums Barack Obama and Mitt Romney typically perform their graduation duties in whatever robes they're given.) Even Cruz's favorite footwear, a pair of black ostrich-skin cowboy boots, serves as an advertisement for his credentials and connections. "These are my argument boots," he told me one morning this summer as we rode the subway car beneath the Capitol to a vote on the Senate floor. "When I was Texas solicitor general, I did every argument in these boots. The one court that I was not willing to wear them in was the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was because my former boss and dear friend William Rehnquist was still chief justice. He and I were very close—he was a wonderful man—but he was very much a stickler for attire."
It was only after Rehnquist died that Cruz felt comfortable wearing his cowboy boots in the Supreme Court—and only then because John Roberts ("a friend for many years") blessed it. "I saw John shortly after his confirmation," Cruz said, "and I guess I was feeling a little cheeky, because I took the opportunity to ask, 'Mr. Chief Justice, do you have any views on the appropriateness of boots as footwear at oral argument?' And Chief Justice Roberts chuckled and he said, 'You know, Ted, if you're representing the state of Texas, they're not only appropriate, they're required.' "
Cruz, 42, arrived in Washington in January as the ultimate conservative purist, a hero to both salt-of-the-earth Tea Partiers and clubby GOP think-tankers, and since then he has come to the reluctant but unavoidable conclusion that he is simply more intelligent, more principled, more right—in both senses of the word—than pretty much everyone else in our nation's capital. That alone isn't so outrageous for the Senate. "Every one of these guys thinks he's the smartest guy in the room," one senior Democratic aide told me. "But Cruz is utterly incapable of cloaking it in any kind of collegiality. He's just so brazen."
Little more than a month after Cruz was sworn in, Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, likened him to Joe McCarthy for his conduct during Chuck Hagel's confirmation for secretary of defense. Without presenting a shred of evidence, Cruz insinuated that Hagel, a fellow Republican, was on the take from America's enemies. Because Hagel had declined to reveal the source of a $200,000 payment, Cruz suggested, how do we know it didn't come from the North Korean government? Or Saudi Arabia's? Even South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, also a Republican, called Cruz's line of inquiry "out of bounds."
And then there was the moment, just a month later, when the Judiciary Committee was debating the assault--weapons ban: Cruz was trying to get it through Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein's thick skull that there was this thing called the Second Amendment and that it deserved the same respect as the rest of the Bill of Rights. He made his point by rattling off other amendments and the rights they protected until Feinstein bristled, "I'm not a sixth grader. I've been on this committee for twenty years.... I've studied the Constitution myself. I am reasonably well educated, and I thank you for the lecture."
For a while, veteran Republicans groused in private about the new guy. But it boiled over when Cruz joined Kentucky senator Rand Paul's filibuster of John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA—an act of protest against Obama's drone program. John McCain, already seething over Cruz's treatment of Hagel, called them "wacko birds." "He fucking hates Cruz," one adviser of the Arizona senator told me. "He's just offended by his style."
The "wacko bird" dig, however, has only endeared Cruz more to his party's purist wing. Already his fans are nudging him to think about a presidential run in 2016, and he's nudging right back, making trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. He's even embraced "wacko bird," reclaiming McCain's knock as a badge of honor. Later on the day I visited him on Capitol Hill, Cruz was engaging in the kind of showing off that even his detractors might forgive: He was giving me a tour of his Senate office. "A couple of things I keep," he said, picking up a red leather rectangle branded with the words IT CAN BE DONE—a replica, he explained, of the sign that sat on President Reagan's desk in the Oval Office. The tchotchke he was most excited to show me, however, was a black baseball cap with a picture of Daffy Duck next to the words WACKO BIRD. Supporters back in Texas made it, Cruz said, grabbing the hat from its prominent perch on his bookshelf. "Isn't it great?"
But all along, what kept drawing my eye was a giant oil painting above the couch depicting Cruz as he delivered the first of his nine oral arguments before the Supreme Court. "I was 32 years old," he recalled. "It was abundantly clear we didn't have a prayer.... And I've always enjoyed the fact that as I'm sitting at my desk, I'm looking at a giant painting of me getting my rear end whipped 9-0." He gazed at the wall. It is an unusual painting: From the artist's vantage point, we see three other courtroom artists, each also drawing Cruz—so the painting actually features not one but four images of young Cruz before the bench. "It is helpful," he explained to me, "for keeping one grounded."
Ted Cruz doesn't look much like a wacko bird. With his pomaded black hair and trim suits—the kind you might expect on a former partner at an international law firm, say, or the husband of a Goldman Sachs executive—the more appropriate avian metaphor would seem to be a peacock. He doesn't sound much like a wacko bird, either. Cruz is a dazzling orator, speaking not merely in precise sentences but complete paragraphs—no teleprompter, sometimes not even a podium—and name-dropping everyone from Reagan to Rawls (as in John, the late Harvard philosopher).
But as Cruz and his supporters define it, "wacko bird" describes more of a state of mind. Or as Cruz put it on the Senate floor a few weeks before my visit, in the midst of yet another fight with McCain, this time over the rules for negotiating a budget: "It has been suggested that those of us who are fighting to defend liberty—fighting to turn around the out-of-control spending and out-of-control debt in this country, fighting to defend the Constitution, it has been suggested that we are wacko birds. Well, if that is the case, I will suggest to my friend from Arizona, there may be more wacko birds in the Senate than is suspected."
He might be right. This certainly feels like a wacko-bird moment in Washington, and maybe in America, too. It's a time when governmental breakdown and public antipathy for the profession of politics have combined to create a perverse incentive structure for congressional Republicans—one that punishes politeness and cooperation and rewards antagonism and obstruction. So far Cruz has proposed no major legislation and has shown little interest in changing that. He seems content accomplishing nothing because, in Cruz's view of the federal government, nothing is the accomplishment.
Contrast this approach with the recent fate of that other precocious Republican in the Senate, Florida's Marco Rubio, who spent the first half of this year crafting bipartisan immigration reform—the kind of grand, reach-across-the-aisle gesture that could serve as a springboard to a presidential campaign. And for his trouble, he wound up with no law (his bill passed the Senate but is seemingly DOA in the House) and a dented reputation among the very people who put him in office. Cruz, a second-generation Cuban-American with a story so singular that it verges on the novelistic, was one of the most outspoken opponents of Rubio's bill.
"Stopping bad things," Cruz told me, "is a significant public service."
About that family story: American voters have a hard time resisting politicians with a good one. Ted Cruz's is great, and he's even better at telling it.
He was born in Canada, in 1970, but his tale, as he likes to say, begins fourteen years earlier in a Cuban jail cell. His father, Rafael, had belonged to Castro's rebel forces fighting to overthrow the Batista dictatorship, and on the night of Rafael's seventeenth birthday in 1956, Batista's goons caught up with him. "He got captured and he disappeared," Cruz told me one day over lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston.
"My grandfather began searching for him, and he just began visiting the jails, going to one after the other after the other. And he eventually found him. He had been beaten so much that there was not a spot of white visible on his suit. It was all stained with mud and blood, and his teeth were dangling out of his mouth." After managing to get Rafael out of prison, Cruz's grandfather told his son that he needed to leave Cuba or the goon squad would find him again. "He said, 'They know who you are. They're just going to hunt you down and kill you.' "
Rafael applied to college in the United States and was admitted to the University of Texas. He secured a student visa, and in 1957 he arrived in Austin. "He was 18, and he couldn't speak English, and he had a hundred dollars sewn into his underwear," Cruz said. "The only possession he had was a slide rule in his pocket." (Parts of the elder Cruz's saga have an air of myth-making—he got into the University of Texas without speaking a word of English? He got out of Batista's prison... how, exactly?)
In between bites of queso flameado, Cruz went on to explain how Rafael put himself through college by washing dishes for fifty cents an hour, learned English from math classes, met an American woman he would soon marry, and recognized the error of his ways in supporting Castro. "He ended up graduating with a math degree and getting a job and eventually starting a small business and working toward the American Dream," Cruz said. "I think it is an enormous blessing to be the child of an immigrant who fled oppression and came here seeking freedom, because there was an urgency in politics. Having principled men and women in office is how you protect yourself from tyranny, and that was something I learned from when I was 2, 3, 5 years old."
Cruz has been telling his father's story for decades. As a champion debater at Princeton, Cruz would frequently deploy it in competition. "I heard that exact narrative about a hundred dollars sewn in his father's underwear," recalls Austan Goolsbee, a former Obama economic adviser who was Cruz's main rival on the college debate circuit in the early '90s. "We all knew the story."
Today, Cruz talks about his father so much that as his political star has risen, so has Rafael's. At the age of 74, the elder Cruz is now a Tea Party celebrity, a sought-out speaker who likens Obama to Castro ("that old bearded friend I left behind in Cuba") and whose words are often rebroadcast by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. For Ted, this recognition has been the most enjoyable by-product of his own political success. "I've really had two heroes in my life," he says. "My father and Ronald Reagan."
But there's one part of Rafael's story that Cruz purposefully omits, and it might be the most affecting—and offers perhaps the most revealing window into Ted's own youthful determination. Cruz's father had started an oil and gas exploration business, then moved with his wife to Calgary, where Ted was born. (Cruz's supporters say—and most legal experts agree—that his Canadian birth would not be an obstacle should he ever run for the White House, since, by dint of his mother's American citizenship, he qualifies as a natural-born American citizen.) In 1974 the family followed the oil business to the Houston suburbs, where Ted would enjoy a typical American adolescence. But then, in the '80s, when Ted was in high school, the oil industry briefly cratered, and his father's business tumbled down with it. He went bankrupt. Eventually his marriage crumbled as well.
When I brought up the bankruptcy one afternoon in Cruz's office—I had learned about it from one of his college friends—his face fell and he grew quiet. After a moment, he let out a long sigh and acknowledged that this was true. "My father poured all of my parents' personal assets into the company, and demand for oil and gas exploration just disappeared, because oil prices dropped so low. There's a whole generation of people in the energy industry at that time that just lost everything."
Instead of derailing Cruz's sky-high ambitions, his father's financial calamity only intensified his drive. In the middle of his junior year, he persuaded his parents to take him out of the high school he was attending—a small evangelical school that met in a former Handy Dan hardware store—and send him to a more academically rigorous Baptist academy.
By then Cruz had already fallen under the spell of a conservative impresario named Rolland Storey, a onetime vaudevillian and retired natural-gas executive who ran a Houston-area think tank called the Free Enterprise Institute. At the institute, Cruz studied right-wing icons Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. He also mastered a mnemonic version of the Constitution, which he'd recite, along with four other high school students, for Kiwanis, Rotary, and other civic clubs across Texas. They performed as a troupe called the Constitutional Corroborators.
Princeton turned out to be as alien to Cruz as Austin had been to his father some thirty years earlier: "I did not know anybody there; I didn't know anybody who had gone there." Like his father, he needed to earn tuition money. Unlike his father, he didn't do it by washing dishes. He got a job with the Princeton Review, teaching test-prep classes.
The elite academic circles that Cruz was now traveling in began to rub off. As a law student at Harvard, he refused to study with anyone who hadn't been an undergrad at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Says Damon Watson, one of Cruz's law-school roommates: "He said he didn't want anybody from 'minor Ivies' like Penn or Brown."
Ted Cruz blew his first big shot in politics. Back in 2000, he had scored a plum assignment working in the policy shop of George W. Bush's Austin-based presidential campaign. He distinguished himself in the weeks after the election, serving on the legal team that helped Bush win the Florida recount and, by extension, the White House. He seemed destined for a meaty job in the new administration.
But Cruz's personal style earned him many detractors in BushWorld. He was infamous for firing off mundane work e-mails in the middle of the night—it happened so often that some in the Bush campaign suspected him of writing them ahead of time and programming his computer to send while he was asleep. He was also known for dispatching regular updates on his accomplishments that one recipient likened to "the cards people send about their families at Christmas, except Ted's were only about him and were more frequent." When it came time to divvy up the spoils of victory, many of Cruz's campaign colleagues headed to the White House; Cruz went to Washington, too—but he was exiled to the outer Siberia of the Federal Trade Commission. Says one friend: "He was pretty crushed."
Cruz lasted two years at the FTC, then returned to Austin and was appointed Texas's solicitor general. His new boss, the state's attorney general, wanted to use the office as a platform for advancing conservative legal theories on politically charged issues such as religion and state's rights. Cruz was the perfect instrument for such a mission. Although he lost that first Supreme Court case, he went on to win four of his next eight, including the landmark Medellín v. Texas, affirming—in defiance of an international court ruling as well as an order from President Bush—the state's right to execute a Mexican citizen who'd participated in the gang rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston. Legal publications hailed him as one of the finest appellate attorneys in America. He was being talked up for a federal judgeship, possibly even the Supreme Court one day.
But Cruz did not want to serve on the bench. In November 2010, he made a trip to Washington for an annual meeting of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group whose confabs he'd been attending since his first year at Harvard Law. Only now he was job hunting. He was about to turn 40, and he was at a professional crossroads. He'd been out of government for two years and was looking for a way back in, this time via election. The only real opening in Texas, though, was a U.S. Senate seat—an impossible reach for Cruz, who'd never even held elected office.
But at the meeting, he met someone who had pulled off that exact feat: Utah senator-elect Mike Lee. Like Cruz, Lee had been a creature of the conservative legal movement, having clerked for Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. Like Cruz, he had left Washington to become a government lawyer back home. And like Cruz, he had never before run for office. But he rode the Tea Party wave of 2010 into the Senate, ousting an incumbent Republican by running to his right. After the Federalist Society meeting, Lee and Cruz took a long walk around the Capitol. "We talked about every conceivable political and constitutional issue," Lee recalls. "I concluded we were kindred spirits."
Cruz launched his insurgent Senate campaign the following January, zeroing in on the GOP front-runner, David Dewhurst, who as Texas lieutenant governor had the party and business establishments lined up behind him. In classic Tea Party fashion, Cruz went after him from the right. In fact, his highfalutin legal career served as the centerpiece of his grassroots campaign, as he took his esoteric Supreme Court victories, from Medellín to his successful defense of a Ten Commandments statue on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol, and recast them as conservative crusades. "He made the solicitor general's job sound like a combination of Rocky and Rambo," marvels the Texas GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak. With an influx of cash from national conservative groups and rousing speeches to whip up the grass roots, Cruz came out of nowhere to force a primary runoff with Dewhurst. He then trounced Dewhurst by fourteen points and cruised past his token Democratic opponent in the general election.
"I cannot tell you," Cruz says now, "how many little old ladies clasped my shoulder and said, 'Ted, please don't go to Washington and become one of them.' "
The little old ladies of Texas ought to be doing cartwheels. Instead of becoming one of them, Cruz has scorched almost all of them. He's reserved his most scathing criticism for his fellow Senate Republicans—branding those who've had the temerity to stake out not-far-right-enough positions as "squishes" and the "surrender caucus." I asked one of Cruz's colleagues, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, if he could recall a freshman behaving as brashly as Cruz. Grassley has been in the Senate for thirty-three years. He was stumped. "Not somebody I've served with," he said finally. "I think Barry Goldwater—reading the history of Barry Goldwater, he made those sorts of impressions right away."
It's unclear exactly how many wacko birds are in the Senate right at this moment, but by Cruz's count there are at least three—Rand Paul, Lee, and himself. And three, he says, is a lot. "I do think the impact of a handful of principled leaders who are fearless in the Senate is significant, and I think it's significant even going from two to three. If you have three, you pretty quickly get to five or six. Five or six is over 10 percent of the Republican conference, and that's enough to move a conference and move the Senate."
Perfect example, to hear Cruz tell it: gun-control legislation. After the Newtown school shootings, "the conventional wisdom in Washington was that [it] was unstoppable, that it was going to get sixty-five, sixty-eight votes, that it was a done deal," he says. In Cruz's narrative, the turning point came when he, Lee, and Paul vowed to filibuster any legislation. The threat failed, but Cruz insists that was never the point: "What we were able to do is, number one, slow things down and, number two, shine a spotlight on them and give time for the grass roots to get engaged."
Not everyone agrees with this interpretation of the events. "Cruz is the rooster taking credit for the sunrise," says Jim Kessler of the think tank Third Way, which lobbied for the bill. "There was never a point in time where we could identify sixty yes votes." Cruz's view is also disputed by many Senate Republicans, who believed (correctly, as it turned out) that gun-control legislation would ultimately fail at the hands of skittish red-state Democrats. Cruz's blustering, these Republicans argued, was actually counterproductive, since it risked shifting the blame for the defeat of a broadly popular bill away from those Democrats and onto obstructionist Republicans.
All that bluster, though, has definitely had an impact in other ways. Some Republicans are so spooked about drawing a conservative primary challenger in next year's midterms—or, as it's now called in Texas circles, "being Ted Cruzed"—that they've moved even farther to the right, paralyzing the Senate's GOP leadership. Exhibit A: John Cornyn, Cruz's fellow senator from Texas. "He has Cornyn just frozen on everything," one senior Senate Republican aide grumbled to me. "A member of our leadership just kind of takes his marching orders from this guy who's been here for a day!"
That may be a problem for Republicans, but not necessarily for Cruz. "We're in a moment when the combination of being hard-core and intelligent is really at a premium," says National Review writer Ramesh Ponnuru, who's been friends with Cruz since they went to Princeton together. "Because the two things that conservatives are tired of are politicians who sell out and politicians who embarrass them by not being able to make an account of themselves." In this arithmetic, Mitt Romney is the sellout and Sarah Palin is the embarrassment—and Cruz is the great new hope who brings the virtues of both without the liabilities of either.
And yet when it comes to policy, the man hailed as the "Tea Party intellectual" has deployed that powerful intellect only sparingly since arriving in Washington. Cruz's most ambitious proposal to date has been his call to abolish the IRS—something that, as one Cruz admirer lamented to me, "he's smart enough to know is an entirely cynical thing to do." Meanwhile, his effort to shut down the federal government (remember how well that worked out for the GOP the last time they tried it?) unless Obamacare is defunded prompted North Carolina Republican senator Richard Burr to call it "the dumbest idea I've ever heard." In multiple conversations with people who know Cruz well, I kept hearing the same refrain: "He's smart enough to know better."
Then again, maybe Cruz does know better. For a party in the midst of some serious soul-searching, Cruz offers a simple, reassuring solution: Forget the blather about demographic tidal waves and pleas for modernization; all Republicans need to do is return to their small-government, anti-tax fundamentals. "I don't know a conservative who didn't feel embarrassed voting in 2006 or 2008," Cruz told me—a remark that's sure to endear him even more to McCain. "I think the Republican Party lost its way. We didn't stand for the principles we're supposed to believe in."
Should he run for president, in 2016 or beyond, Cruz's strategy will be to superglue himself to the conservative base and hope it carries him to the GOP nomination. It's been tried over and over since Reagan—and it has failed every time. Just not enough wacko birds out there. Then again, the men who have tried it—from Pat Robertson in 1988 to Rick Santorum in 2012—possessed nowhere near Cruz's political acumen, not to mention his life story. Or, to put it the way Cruz himself might: None of them were Ted Cruz.
One Thursday evening in July, Cruz and Rand Paul—ideological kissing cousins already sizing each other up as 2016 rivals—caught the same flight from Washington to Des Moines for the Iowa Renewal Project, a summit for conservative Christian pastors held at the downtown Marriott. It was nearly two and a half years before the state's presidential caucuses.
In his speech to the pastors the following Friday, Paul evoked Billy Graham: "America needs to revive the hope that springs eternal from the transcendent teachings of a humble carpenter who died on a cross." Cruz cited the book of Isaiah, Edmund Burke, and the prophet Ezekiel, and he regaled the pastors with tales of his Supreme Court battles, casting them in religious terms. Paul had arrived in Iowa with the bigger profile, but Cruz made the bigger splash. Countless pastors came up to him and laid their hands on his shoulders in a prayerful gesture. "Remember when the devils tried to take the Ten Commandments out of the State Capitol there?" I overheard one pastor breathlessly relay into his cell phone. "That was his case, so he's really a fighter. He's a righteous man."
Later in the afternoon, Cruz stopped by the Iowa Republican Party's annual summer picnic, where for $100 a head, about fifty GOP activists squeezed into a small brick building to eat barbecue and hear the Texas senator's pitch. But Cruz also drew another, less friendly crowd. Outside, a pack of immigration protestors had gathered on the front steps, and while he spoke, they banged on the door and chanted through bullhorns, "Ted, Ted, come on out, see what Iowa's all about!" At one point in his speech, Cruz got a laugh by acknowledging the ruckus: "We obviously have some friends outside who have different views from those of us in here."
And with that, Cruz launched into one of his humble-bragging stories—about the time he had "the curious opportunity" to give the commencement address to the University of California Berkeley's political- science department. "It so happened that that attracted protesters," he said, not trying to hide a smug grin. "They were very, very upset that I had defended the Ten Commandments in Texas, and the Pledge of Allegiance." He paused, letting the virtue of his stand sink in with his audience. Then he went on: "And my wife Heidi's comment upon hearing them, as she looked at me and she said, 'You know, you're not nearly important enough to protest.' " Ω
[Jason Zengerle serves as Senior Editor of The New Republic. Zengerle writes about politics, culture, and (when his editors indulge him) college basketball. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, GQ, New York, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications; and it has been anthologized in several books, including The Best American Political Writing and The Best American Medical Writing. He received a BA from Swarthmore College.]
Copyright © 2013 GQ/Condé Nast
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves