The Most Hated Man in the Senate

What's Ted Cruz's problem?


In the first few months of his first term in the United States Senate, Ted Cruz has been, for all practical purposes, the human equivalent of one of those flower-squirters that clowns wear on their lapels. His initiatives can often seem like non-sequiturs — he has proposed defunding the United Nations over forced abortions in China. And his statements can seem almost self defeating, such as when he described decorated war veterans Chuck Hagel and John Kerry as “less than ardent fans of the U.S. military.”

Not surprisingly, the freshman from Texas has irritated Democrats. Sen. Dianne Feinstein described him as “arrogant” and “patronizing” after the new arrival offered the 20-year Senate veteran a lesson on the constitution during a debate over assault weapons. He’s also been a headache for GOP leaders, expressing reluctance to back fellow Texas Republican John Cornyn for minority whip on the grounds that he had to make sure the candidate he supported would “stand and fight for conservative principles.” (National Journal ranked Cornyn as the second-most conservative member in the pre-Cruz Senate last year.)

Cruz’s ecumenical approach to criticism has, however, contributed to some confusion about what he actually believes. The question of whether Cruz is an isolationist or an interventionist, for example, has elicited some debate among conservatives; he’s pro-Israel, hawkish on Iran, yet apparently skeptical of interventionism and nation-building. He wants more border security, and less illegal immigration — but he has also asserted that the United States is and should remain a country that “celebrates” legal immigrants. Also, he keeps talking about the great twentieth-century political philosopher John Rawls, who has more often been associated with the left than the right — to the great frustration of Democrats, who feel like Cruz is, disingenuously co-opting their concerns.

Cruz is often lumped in with fellow GOP rising stars like Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan, but of all of them, he is perhaps the toughest to pin down ideologically. So what exactly does Cruz believe?

First, it’s important to understand that foreign policy isn’t his primary focus: He’s economically liberal, in the classical sense, and economic issues make up the bulk of his political message. His stump speech, the one that references Rawls, is a call for the GOP to recast its small-government stance to emphasize what he’s calling “opportunity conservatism” — the belief that conservatives “should conceptualize and should articulate every domestic policy with a laser focus on easing the means of ascent,” as he put it in a January speech in Austin.

Beyond economics, his approach is a bit more idiosyncratic. He’s ideological, even compulsive, with regard to the Constitution. This is a longstanding preoccupation — as an undergraduate at Princeton, he wrote his thesis on the 9th and 10th amendments — and apparently a sincere one. It helps explain why he gave his colleague Rand Paul a much-needed break during his March 6 anti-drone filibuster. He’s firmly against gun control, but that stance is rooted in his reading of the Constitution rather than any affinity for gun culture. (Cruz, more nerd than sportsman, would look no more plausible skeet shooting than Barack Obama.)

It also helps explain Cruz’s stance on immigration. Many observers were surprised when Cruz conspicuously declined to make common cause earlier this year with Sen. Marco Rubio on immigration reform. Cruz, like Rubio, is the son of an immigrant from Cuba, and Texas Republicans have, as a group, been more moderate on the issue than the national GOP. But unauthorized immigration is, of course, both an economic issue and a legal one. Someone like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who signed Texas’s 2001 law that made certain undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities, is looking at it through the former lens. Cruz sees it as a rule-of-law issue, arguing that establishing a path to citizenship would be “profoundly unfair” to legal immigrants.

Cruz’s preoccupation with principles began early. He was born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban immigrant father, who had met in Texas and would soon return there; Cruz often tells crowds about how his father had only a few dollars to his name when he came to the United States and worked his way through college, at the University of Texas, by washing dishes.

By high school, the young Ted Cruz had become a competitive debater, and memorized stretches of the Constitution; he kept up both pursuits at Princeton, where he won several national debate awards. By the time he went on to Harvard Law School, a political career must have seemed likely, although he logged a few years on Wall Street before moving into the public sector.

But the defining moment of Cruz’s time as Texas’s solicitor general may be the best indicator of how he views America’s place in the world: the case of Medellín v. Texas.

In 1993, José Medellín was one of several men who, as part of a gang initiation in Houston, raped and murdered two teenage girls. In 1997, he was convicted and sentenced to death. In 2003, the appeals began. Although Medellín’s guilt was clear enough — he had signed a confession a few days after the murder — he was technically a Mexican national, having moved to the United States as a toddler, and Texas authorities hadn’t notified him of his right, under the Vienna Convention, to contact the consulate.

Medellin’s case got a boost in 2005, when President George W. Bush wrote a memo confirming that state courts should, in view of the country’s international commitments, review Medellin’s case and a number of others. The memo seemed like an olive branch on Bush’s part — the issue had become a point of tension between the Mexico and the United States.

The reaction in Texas among those following the case was not particularly sympathetic to the president’s diplomatic outreach. And Medellin v Texas wasn’t the kind of case that would help an isolationist warm to the cause. The plaintiff was effectively arguing that despite being a confessed and convicted rapist and murderer, he should be protected by two sets o
f loopholes — regardless of what you think of Texas, or the death penalty, it was pretty audacious. When the case made it to the Supreme Court, Texas won on a 6-3 vote, and a couple of years later, when Perry wrote about the saga in his campaign book, he was clearly incredulous that three Supreme Court justices hadn’t agreed.

Cruz took that view of it too. “Were Medellín’s view correct, the implications would be staggering,” he wrote in an article adapted from a speech he gave at Yale Law School in 2010 “The President could overturn any law at any time in the name of enforcing any vague, aspirational, international agreement the United States might have ratified.” The court’s ruling was cause for celebration, he said, because the values at stake — American sovereignty and the separation of powers — had both been upheld. On the other hand, Cruz continued, “the case invites great trepidation, because it represents an assault on those principles that will continue unabated for many years to come.”

Those principles, Cruz implied, were important enough that he was willing to put aside his personal feelings in the situation. In fact, “on a personal level,” he found it noteworthy that he had, “ironically enough” ended up arguing with Bush and taking up arguments that had previously been made by the Clinton administration. As that aside suggests, Cruz has, never been particularly concerned with ingratiating himself. Perhaps the best example of that, beyond the recent scuffles in Washington, is the fact that he is in the capital in the first place after a meteoric rise through Texas politics. One thing to know about the Lone Star State’s government is that there’s a traffic jam at the top: Perry is the longest-serving governor in state history, having got the job in 2000 after Bush stepped down to prepare for his presidential inauguration. Most of the state’s top politicians have been in statewide politics, if not the same exact role, for more than a decade.

Cruz, by contrast, had never even run for office before 2012. On the face of it, he was an unlikely candidate. He was well known in political circles from having served as solicitor general, but was still largely unknown among the general public. His years in the attorney general’s office were his only public-sector experience in Texas, although he had worked in Washington, at the Federal Trade Commission, during Bush’s first term.

In other words, when Cruz took on Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in the Republican Senate primary last year, he was jumping the line by about 50 spots. Even political scion George P. Bush is running for land commissioner in 2014, although he could surely raise enough money to take a swing at the governor’s office, and apparently considered it. That Cruz would blithely run for the Senate seat — let alone win it — surely irks Texan politicians of both parties.

That’s not Cruz’s problem, though — and as he climbs the political ladder, he seems destined to annoy some more people along the way. He might even take a shot at the presidency some day. If he does, he might come across as too wonkish and too aggressive to connect with voters. “Belligerent egghead” has rarely been a winning brand in presidential politics. (Just ask Newt Gingrich.) In terms of foreign policy, though, polling shows that Republicans around the country share some of Cruz’s concerns; they are, for example, somewhat skeptical of international cooperation. And to date, at least, it doesn’t seem that Cruz’s controversies have caused him any personal trouble; in January, Public Policy Polling found that he had a higher net approval rating than either Perry or Cornyn. If he wants to have a greater role in national politics, which seems likely, there’s clearly an audience.

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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