Something About Ted Cruz
The Young, Conservative Cuban American Senator From Texas Maintains It’s The Gop That Offers True Economic Opportunity
Evan Vucci / AP |
Vice President Joe Biden administers the Senate Oath to Sen. Ted Cruz during a mock swearing in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday Jan. 3, 2013 as the 113th Congress officially began
I met ted cruz about 10 years ago. At least, I think it was Ted. I’m not sure. The young man I met then, and have known since, looks and sounds just like the newly minted junior senator from Texas who became a political rock star even before he was sworn in; the same lean build, boyish face, hint of a Lone Star twang. He was wicked smart and well spoken then, and those characteristics are even more in evidence now. Then and now, you’ll see that this isn’t just someone who went to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and clerked for the chief justice of the Supreme Court and worked at the Justice Department, and served as Texas solicitor general and rested on his laurels but someone who excelled at all those things in all those places.
Back then, Ted was a loyal Republican who thought the GOP’s opportunity conservatism held more promise than liberal notions of government dependency; and he seems even more convinced of that now. In those days, he was a “Bushie,” working for the Bush administration and serving as director of the office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission; by all appearances, he remains a simpatico of the Bush clan. In fact, George P. Bush, fellow Texan and next in line to the family throne, leapt to Cruz’s defense during the senate primary when Cruz’s Republican opponent put up an ad unfairly characterizing Cruz’s position on immigration as “pro-amnesty.”
So it must be the same Ted Cruz. Yet, in other ways, the person I know bears no resemblance to the caricature sketched out in the liberal media or the narrative I hear from Democratic friends. That person is “Tea Party Ted,” “Extremist Ted,” “Too-rightwing-and-acceptable-to-white-Republicans-to-relate-to-let-alone-represent-Latino-Democrats Ted.”
In what has turned out to be a mixed blessing, the Texas Tea Party endorsed Cruz. That group came away from scrapping with an American president over health care reform with a reputation for being obstinate. And because the president happened to be black, it also became known—in some quarters—as racist. So what does it say about a Hispanic elected official that he enjoys the support of people like this? To some, it says that Cruz isn’t exactly working for the advancement of Hispanics and other minorities but working against it. But nothing in politics is that simple or convenient—even if Cruz’s Democratic detractors would like to make it so.
I was reminded of that during a recent interview, just 24 hours after the 42-year-old was sworn into office and became the first Hispanic senator in the history of Texas. Just eight days after he was elected, Cruz was appointed vice-chairman of the National Senatorial Campaign Committee. Talk about being on a fast track. As they say in the Lone Star State, that’s already enough to say grace over. But, take it from me, the best part of the Ted Cruz story isn’t where he has arrived but how he got here.
Who is Ted Cruz anyway?
My friend would insist I start with the personal. He’s the husband of the former Heidi Nelson, who he met while working on the Bush-Cheney campaign. He’s the father of two darling little girls—Caroline, 4, and Catherine, 2. He’s the son of a Cuban-American father (Rafael) and an Irish-American mother (Eleanor). He’s the proud son of an immigrant; his father—who Ted says has been his hero his entire life—fled Cuba in 1957 at age 18 and came to the United States not speaking English and with no more than $100 to his name. When you have that kind of family history, politics is in your bloodstream.
“A while back,” he told me, “A friend at dinner asked me when I got interested in politics. And I said, ‘To be honest, I have been my whole life. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t interested in politics. And I’m not really sure why that’s the case.’ And, Heidi laughed. You know how our spouses can sometimes see things about us to which we’re oblivious? She said, ‘No wonder. Look how you grew up.’
“I hadn’t thought about it in that context. As you know, my dad fled Cuba as a teenager and came here seeking freedom. To be the child of an immigrant who came here with nothing seeking a better life has been a powerful motivation for me my entire life. At our house at our dinner table growing up, what was happening in politics wasn’t just a passing engagement. There was an urgency to politics. Having principled men and women in office is how you protect yourself from tyranny.”
A DOOR OPENS
And yet, despite the family bloodline, Cruz is something of an accidental politician. He had planned to run for Texas attorney general in 2010, and even went to the lengths of printing yard signs and launching a campaign—one that had to be suspended when the Republican incumbent, Gregg Abbott, refused to step aside because the higher office that Abbott had planned to run for—the U.S. Senate seat held by Kay Bailey Hutchinson—was not yet vacant. Hutchinson had decided to stay in Washington a while longer after her failed 2010 gubernatorial bid. When she finally did retire, Cruz ran for the seat as an anti-establishment conservative who wasn’t afraid to butt heads with both parties. It was musical chairs, Texas-style. Cruz’ opponent, Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst, the pick of the Republican Party establishment, spent more than $30 million in attack ads intended to crush the challenger; they failed. And so, Mr. Cruz goes to Washington —against his better judgment.
“Almost anyone in his or her right mind wouldn’t put up with the nonsense you put up with to run for office,” he says. “In the last two years, we have literally gone 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, crisscrossing the state of Texas, raising money constantly, having $35 million of attack ads run against me. Most people would not choose to jump into that arena.” So why did he enter it? The answer has a lot to do with what lured his father to these shores in the first place: freedom and liberty.
“I think the freedoms we have in America are really unique in the annals of world history,” Cruz says. “And they’re fragile. One of the consequences of being the child of an immigrant who fled oppression is that you understand just how fragile liberty is and how quickly it can be taken away.”
Much to the angst and consternation of liberal Democrats and other supporters of President Obama, Cruz thinks that this is precisely what is happening now under this administration. One of his first bills that Cruz plans to introduce is an attempt to repeal the national health care law known as Obamacare.
We can also expect Cruz to tackle other tough issues, including the need to cut spending and rein in entitlements. And there is no more beloved, or troubled, entitlement program in America than Social Security.
THE THIRD RAIL
I asked Cruz if is he is ready to join Republican colleagues who plan to force the issue of fixing Social Security. He is. “There is no doubt that we can’t deal with our fiscal mess without fundamental entitlement reform to preserve social security, to preserve Medicare, to make sure that those programs are strong because they are fundamental bulwarks of our society,” he says. “But most Republicans argue for Social Security reform the wrong way. They put on a green eyeshade and start talking about the long-term solvency of the Social Security trust fund. And that is an argument that moves some of us, and has some force.
“But in my view, far more potent is the need to create personal savings accounts that each of us owns and controls and can bequeath to our children and grandchildren. Right now, the status quo is that you have an African-American man or a Hispanic woman working as a janitor or cleaning homes. They pay into the Social Security system for 30 or 40 years, they work their fingers to the bone. They retire. They receive a few years of payments from Social Security. And they pass away. If you had personal savings accounts, that same African-American janitor, that same Hispanic housekeeper, working at very modest wages—$20,000 or $30,000 a year—would pay into the system. They retire. They receive Social Security benefits from the government. They would have acquired an additional 100,000 or 200,000 to give to their kids or grandkids to buy a house, to go to college, to start a business. That’s transformational. That’s about empowering individuals.”