National Review Cover Story: ‘As Good As It Gets’
By Brian Bolduc
In an unfurnished storefront in a nondescript strip mall, the Republican Women of Kerr County, Texas, is holding a candidates’ forum. Seventy people—most of them seniors—are fidgeting in folding chairs, as a projector beams images of the candidates onto a screen. Next to the slideshow stands a stout wooden podium, from which the emcee, local talk-radio host James Williamson, is addressing the audience.
“Now this is heavy, folks,” he avers. Kerr County is hill country, home to only 50,000 people in a state of 25 million. And yet this forum—with its attendant straw poll—has gained the attention of every candidate in the Republican primary for retiring senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat. Well, almost. The frontrunner, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, is absent. Since he declared his candidacy one month ago, he’s skipped six straight forums.
But his main opponent is present: former state solicitor general Ted Cruz. After Williamson’s introduction, the candidate takes the floor. It’s a blistering August afternoon—the temperature will hit 105°F—yet the 40-year-old Cruz shows little discomfort: He’s sporting a navy blue blazer, an aqua blue tie, and, of course, black cowboy boots. Bypassing the podium, he places himself squarely in front of the audience and makes his pitch.
“I want to begin with an apology,” he says in a slightly nasal but commanding voice. “I apologize for not having a teleprompter.” The crowd chuckles; it gets the joke. For the next ten minutes, Cruz speaks without notes, not once tripping over his words. Like a good lawyer, he outlines his argument: “I want to share with you why it is I’m running for U.S. Senate and why it is I believe together we can win.”
His reason for running is simple: Over the last two and a half years, President Obama has tightened the federal government’s vise on the economy, and only the strongest of conservatives can pry it free. “I am convinced we are facing the epic battle of our generation,” Cruz says, his brow furrowed. The primary, therefore, revolves around one question: “Which candidate is best prepared to stand up and lead the fight to stop the Obama agenda?”
Cruz acknowledges that every candidate claims to be conservative. “Suddenly, they’ve all discovered this thing called the Tenth Amendment,” he jokes. But Cruz is a foot soldier in the conservative movement. And he has the scars to prove it.
As state solicitor general from 2003 to 2008, he represented Texas in cases before the Supreme Court, he explains. Throughout his tenure, he championed conservative causes. As he lists his victories, Cruz chops his right arm on key words for emphasis.
“We defended the Ten Commandments monument that stands on the state-capitol grounds,” he says with a chop. “We went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and we won 5–4.”
Next point: “We defended the Pledge of Allegiance when a federal court of appeals struck down the pledge . . . because it included the words ‘one nation under God.’ We went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and we won unanimously.”
He saves his favorite for last: a case called Medellin v. Texas, in which the George W. Bush administration tried to force Texas to obey a ruling of the International Court of Justice. “On the other side were 90 foreign nations,” he says, adding softly, “and the president of the United States.” Nonetheless, “we defended U.S. sovereignty . . . and we won 6–3.”
“That’s the record I’m running on,” Cruz assures the crowd. In a crescendo, he affirms, “What we need in the Senate is a fighter. We don’t need another establishment, career politician that’s going to put his arm around the Democrats and keep compromising in growing the size and spending and power of the federal government.” (Meaning: We don’t need Dewhurst.)
Cruz receives warm applause for his effort. But he has competition. The last candidate to speak is 32-year-old rancher Lela Pittenger. She has no political experience, but she has the natural touch. “When people want to know what kind of experience I have, I say, ‘Well, if you’re talking about lying, cheating, or flip-flopping on the issues, I have no experience,’” she jokes to a grateful audience.
After the forum, Jim Redden, an attendee, tells me, “The lady’s very impressive.”
“Pittenger blows me away,” Jolene Hawkins, another attendee, says.
But even if the crowd appreciates Pittinger’s performance, in their gut they crave a winner.
“Cruz would win,” Lorraine LeMon, an attendee, tells me as she grapples with her vote. The straw poll is about to close.
When the votes are tallied, the victor’s margin is huge: Of 101 votes cast, Ted Cruz wins 64 of them, while Pittenger gets 15. No-show Dewhurst earns just three votes.
Cruz’s victory is well deserved. Last night, he corralled 25 of his supporters at a nearby restaurant, Buzzie’s Bar-B-Q. Today, he is the last candidate to leave—he’s constantly shaking hands, swapping stories, fielding questions. He’s determined to win. And that determination has seen him through.
Cruz inherited his work ethic from his parents. In 1957, his father, then 18 years old, fled Cuba for Austin with just $100, sewn into his underwear. He didn’t speak English, so he washed dishes seven days a week to pay his way through the University of Texas, during which time he met his wife, Cruz’s mother. Both studied mathematics, and after college, they started a small business in seismic-data processing for oil companies.
Cruz also inherited his patriotism from them. “When I was a kid, my father used to say to me all the time, ‘When we faced oppression in Cuba, I had a place to flee to. If we lose our freedom here, where do we go?’” he says. That concern for liberty (and the prospect of scholarship money) drew him as a high-school student to the Free Enterprise Institute, a Houston-based think tank dedicated to teaching students about the American founders and the free market.
Each year, the institute held a speech contest for high-school students entitled “The Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom.” The contestants would read classical liberals such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and then they would each write a 20-minute speech on what they had learned. Cruz was one of his city’s winners in all four years of high school, and he would travel to different civic-minded institutions—Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, “anyone who would listen”—to give his speech from memory.
Cruz’s involvement with the institute led to a lifelong love affair with the Constitution. The institute soon began another group called “The Constitutional Corroborators,” which took five high-school students, assigned them readings about the Constitution, and then helped them memorize a mnemonic version of the document. Afterward, they toured Texas. Their shtick was to set up five pads of paper on easels and, using their mnemonic device, write the entire Constitution—in truncated form—from memory.
The students were so impressive, in fact, that they inspired one businessman, Tom DeLay, to go into politics.
By the time the 17-year-old Cruz enrolled at Princeton University in the fall of 1988, he had given over 70 speeches on the Constitution across the Lone Star State. It was no surprise, then, that he joined the debate team. Cruz seemed a shoo-in for the “Best Freshman Debater” award, but it went instead to David Panton, a Jamaican student who lived down the hall from Cruz in Butler College.
“I think Ted was pissed that he didn’t get it,” Panton jokes. Not one to let rivalry poison a friendship, however, Cruz asked Panton to be his debate partner. In 1992, their senior year, the two won the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s “Team of the Year” award. “I loved debating with Ted,” Panton says. “A lot of people are smart, but he also has this passionate side. That combination really is a key to his success.”
That, and plain grit. When Cruz and Panton began debating together, they would occasionally lose. When they got back from a tournament, therefore, Cruz would insist that they review the scorecards and determine what they could have done differently. Soon, they started winning more frequently, but Cruz wasn’t satisfied. Even after they won the “Second Best Team” award as juniors, Cruz would still insist that they review their scorecards late into the night. “I was like, Ted, why?” Panton remembers. “His determination to improve himself was amazing.”
And he loved to talk politics. “We would have long conversations way into the night, talking about the Tenth Amendment,” Panton remembers. “I hadn’t even heard of the Tenth Amendment till I met him.”
Cruz wasn’t just another social-ladder climber, says Prof. Robert P. George, Cruz’s thesis adviser at Princeton. “He had a drive to know even when it wasn’t particularly connected to any instrumental benefit,” George says. Cruz was fascinated by the Constitution, so much so that he wrote his thesis on the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. “Ted was very drawn to the idea of constitutional originalism,” George says. “He was a strong supporter of the idea that the federal government possesses delegated and, therefore, limited powers.”
Cruz’s grasp of the Constitution was so strong that it commanded the respect of liberals, including Prof. Alan M. Dershowitz, who taught him in a first-year criminal-law class at Harvard Law School, where Cruz enrolled in the fall of 1992. “Cruz was off-the-charts brilliant,” Dershowitz says. Luckily for Cruz, his best friend Panton enrolled at Harvard that same year, and usually, the two would sit together in class. Each would argue one side of every issue—Cruz the conservative, Panton the liberal. “The other students would stare up in wonderment at these guys because they were so much more mature politically,” Dershowitz says. “They weren’t asking the teachers to tell them what to believe.”
After law school, Cruz clerked for judge Michael Luttig of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. And beginning in the summer of 1996, Cruz clerked for one of his icons, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Each week, Cruz and his fellow clerks, Richard Garnett and David Hoffman, would write memos summarizing the hundreds of petitions the high court had received. They would work late into the night, pausing around 8 P.M. to play basketball at the court on the top floor of their building—“the highest court in the land.”
Every Thursday, they would turn in their memos at 10:30 A.M. and then join the chief for a game of tennis, which would begin promptly at 11. Although Cruz hoped to be the chief’s doubles partner, he was awful, and Rehnquist didn’t like to lose. “His enthusiasm for tennis was greater than his skill,” says Garnett, now a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. Instead, Cruz played with the designated liberal among Rehnquist’s clerks, Hoffman.
To this day, Hoffman remembers his arguments with Cruz, which the chief would referee over a cheeseburger and a “Miller’s Lite,” as Rehnquist called it, at the Monocle, a restaurant on Capitol Hill. One time the two got so heated that the chief interceded. “‘That’s enough; pipe down, you two,’ he told us,” Hoffman remembers.
But Cruz couldn’t resist politics. After his clerkship, he joined the law offices of Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal, where he assisted such high-profile cases as Rep. John Boehner’s suit against Rep. Jim McDermott for leaking the contents of one of Boehner’s cell phone conversations to the press. In June 1999, however, Cruz met Josh Bolten, George W. Bush’s campaign policy director, at a reception in D.C., and the two hit it off.
“I remember a very sharp young man who was extremely courteous and well mannered, but very sharp and intellectually focused,” Bolten says. Days later, Bolten extended Cruz an offer to be a policy staffer for the Bush team. Cruz quickly accepted. On the campaign, Cruz handled legal issues—“basically anything that would have been handled by the Justice Department,” Bolten says—often advising the candidate himself when he called in with questions.
The Bush campaign launched Cruz’s political career, sending him to posts as an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department and, later, as the director of policy planning at the Federal Trade Commission. It also helped his love life: Cruz met his wife, Heidi, on the campaign.
But the role he most relished was state solicitor general. In 2003, a friend called Cruz to ask him whether he would like to be considered for the post. Although Cruz had never met the attorney general, Greg Abbott, he obliged. The two met in Austin, and several weeks later, Abbott offered him the job. Cruz made the most of his tenure: He authored 70 briefs to the Supreme Court and argued in front of the court nine times.
“Ted really set the gold standard for what a conservative lawyer should do in public service,” says James C. Ho, Cruz’s successor as solicitor general. “He litigated at the very highest levels of the profession, and he worked with his colleagues to identify conservative causes to champion through the courts.”
Cruz’s drive brought him from the hills of Texas to the halls of Washington. Now, he hopes to return to the capital city—as a United States senator.
One difficulty Republicans have had for a long time is we typically are not effective articulating our message,” Cruz tells me one afternoon in his bare campaign office in Austin. With his tie tucked into his shirt, Cruz interjects answers to my questions as he wolfs down a sandwich from Quiznos. (He’s just come from a campaign event, and he’s got another meet-up in a few hours.)
It was Republicans’ rhetorical handicap that prevented them from winning the public-relations battle over the debt ceiling, Cruz says. And that’s a shame, because it provided the perfect political environment for passing a balanced-budget amendment, one plank in his platform.
On domestic issues, Cruz is fiscally hawkish and strongly pro-life. He’s for repealing the Obama agenda—Obamacare, cap-and-trade, Dodd-Frank—and for implementing conservative reforms—cutting the corporate-tax rate to 15 percent, instituting a flat income tax or the FairTax, and adding private investment accounts to Social Security. He also supports some newer proposals, such as passing Rep. Ron Paul’s bill to audit the Federal Reserve and allowing small and medium-sized companies to opt out of the Sarbanes-Oxley law.
On illegal immigration, Cruz is just as tough, promising a laser-like focus on border security. “I believe we should use every tool at our disposal to secure our borders so that illegal immigration drops to zero”—fences, walls, helicopters, drones, and, most important, people. “I intend to introduce a bill to triple the size of the U.S. Border Patrol,” Cruz says.
He reminds opponents of illegal immigration to focus on border security, rather than hope that the Supreme Court will reinterpret the Fourteenth Amendment to deny birthright citizenship to children of illegal immigrants. “I don’t think their argument is consistent with the Constitution, and so even if that outcome might be desirable as a policy outcome, I think we have an obligation to be faithful to the Constitution,” he reasons.
On foreign policy, Cruz is less than sanguine about nation building: “I don’t think we should be engaged in long-term nation building. I think there are too many nations on earth to build up, and it’s not our military’s job.” When asked about Afghanistan and Iraq, Cruz is cautious. After a few munches on his sandwich, he says, “What I don’t think is acceptable is for us just to stay there in perpetuity and try to rebuild each nation into a perfect utopia. That’s not our job and not our role. I think we have an important role stopping and killing terrorists.”
Within the party rank-and-file, it is believed that Cruz is the conservative in the race. “At the end of the day, Cruz will be more conservative than Dewhurst,” a longtime Republican activist says.
Some believe that because Cruz is Hispanic, he will appeal to the growing Latin American community in Texas. But though he is proud of his heritage, Cruz has never taken a self-righteous attitude about his ethnicity. At a July 1998 recording of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, for example, he was asked whether the fact that, at the time, he was the only person belonging to a minority group to have clerked for a Supreme Court justice was evidence of bias in the institution.
“What we see in terms of Supreme Court clerks is also unfortunately what we see at the very tops of the law schools,” Cruz replied. “And rather than tearing down those institutions, rather than attacking the court for not hiring minorities, I think we need to be asking why is it that there aren’t more minorities that are excelling like that.” Unsurprisingly, Cruz is a strong proponent of school choice.
Despite his years in academia and in Washington, Cruz remains a true believer. He often says he’ll consider himself a failure if after a whole term in the Senate, he has only a perfect voting record. He wants to see the conservative agenda enacted. “Statists invariably have talented people drawn to politics because they believe in power,” he says. “And they’re very effective at defending government control of the economy in our lives. But for conservatives, there has been an incredible scarcity of effective, principled defenders of liberty. And so starting as a teenager, what I wanted to do in life was to defend the Constitution and to defend free-market principles.”
But it won’t be easy. When Public Policy Polling surveyed Texas Republicans about their preferred senatorial candidate in June, 40 percent picked Dewhurst. Cruz, by contrast, won only 11 percent. (Five years as state solicitor general won’t necessarily raise a man’s profile.) And though Cruz ended the second quarter with over $1.5 million in cash on hand and only $70,000 in debt, Dewhurst is a multimillionaire who can dump as much money as he needs into his campaign. Cruz will definitely need more cash.
The lieutenant governor is a formidable opponent. He grew up in Houston before attending the University of Arizona, where he played basketball. After college, he enlisted in the Air Force, and later, he served a brief stint with the Central Intelligence Agency—doing exactly what, he’s never said. In the early 1980s, Dewhurst founded the energy company Falcon Seaboard during an oil-and-gas boom. Before long, the boom went bust, as did Dewhurst. But he rebounded, and by the 1990s he was flying high. Today, he is worth an estimated $200 million.
Dewhurst first ran for office in 1998, when he was elected land commissioner. In 2002, he traded up, running for lieutenant governor in a competitive race against Democratic comptroller John Sharp. In his current office, Dewhurst presides over the state senate, doing his best to foster consensus. And that’s exactly what conservatives don’t like about him.
“With party insiders, he’s less popular,” a GOP official tells me. Conservatives blame Dewhurst for the Texas legislature’s failure to pass a law penalizing sanctuary cities this year. Although the senate did pass a related bill, it did so late in a special session, leaving too little time for the house to reconcile the competing approaches. Dewhurst also has a few quotes floating around the Internet that he probably regrets. For example, in 2005, he argued in favor of a wage tax to pay for greater education spending, saying, “What good Texan is going to have real heartburn about paying—out of $650,000—$6,000 to $9,000 to improve the education of our youngsters?”
“Dewhurst is going to wage the air war, and Cruz is going to wage the ground war,” the Republican activist says. Like Marco Rubio in Florida, Cruz can’t outspend his primary opponent, but he can outrun him, going to every assemblage of conservative activists and hoping his message catches fire. In September, Cruz again trounced Dewhurst in a straw poll, this one held by the Garland Tea Party. The margin was 64.5 percent to 1 percent.
Cruz has earned the backing of several prominent conservatives and conservative groups. The Club for Growth and FreedomWorks have both endorsed him. Sens. Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Pat Toomey are supporting his campaign, and Cruz himself hopes to join the constitutional-conservative faction if he’s elected to the Senate. He’s also gained the support of Washington Post columnist George Will, who declared Cruz in a June column “as good as it gets.”
Their support alone won’t put him over the top. But Cruz’s dogged determination might. When Panton and he were the second-best debating team in the country, he made them practice until they were first. When a Republican president pressured his home state to accept a World Court ruling, he got the Supreme Court to reverse it. And when a well-known, wealthy politician stands between him and the United States Senate, you get the feeling that Ted Cruz will, somehow, find a way to win.