Dana Milbank
Opinion writer August 14, 2012

During the 2000 presidential campaign, I went to Austin to profile the whippersnappers on George W. Bush’s team. Bush headquarters was full of young talent, but one man surprised me with his blatant audition to be featured in my article.

This eager staffer told me about how at Princeton he was the nation’s top debater, about his Supreme Court clerkship and his time on the Harvard Law Review, and about his well-placed connections. When I mentioned this self-promotional effort to a senior Bush adviser, I received a knowing eye-roll in response, and I decided to focus my profile on somebody else.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Perhaps I should have listened to the ambitious fellow: His name was R. Ted Cruz, and he is now a shoo-in to be the next U.S. senator from Texas. He kept me informed of his progress as he worked his way up through the Bush Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission before heading home to be Texas’s solicitor general.

These days we’re hearing about a different Ted Cruz: darling of the Tea Party, choice of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. This Ted Cruz wants to abolish the Commerce, Education and Energy departments, the IRS and the Transportation Security Administration. This Ted Cruz was quoted by the Texas Tribune as saying of Obamacare: “I’ll throw my body in front of a train to stop anything short of its complete and total repeal.”

I don’t doubt that Cruz holds conservative views. But a lot of the excess in the ideas he expresses now are surely less about ideology than expediency. The ambitious Cruz recognized that aligning himself with the burgeoning Tea Party movement would help propel him past the favorite to win the Republican Senate primary, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

I reached out to Cruz’s campaign to see whether he would talk to me; I thought he should be portrayed as something more than a Tea Party caricature. But my requests were ignored; in his current incarnation, being promoted in the mainstream media is apparently no longer desirable. Still, I am comforted by the theory that Cruz is driven more by ambition than by Tea Party doctrine.

In this sense, I put Cruz in a category with the Republicans’ new vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, a product of the elite Miami University of Ohio and a reasonable man who hardened his views to keep up with the Republicans’ ascendant conservatism. These are intellectually curious, liberal-arts conservatives who, although far to the right, are not temperamentally as unreasonable as they must pretend. If I’m correct that these are ambitious men using the Tea Party to get what they want, this could be good news if they achieve power and the irrational passions of the moment fade.

When I met Cruz a dozen years ago, I recognized his breed of Ivy League conservative. In the Yale Political Union, where I debated a quarter-century ago, there was a group called the Party of the Right, a band of young men who read Ayn Rand and were forever trying to get the union to hold a moment of silence in memory of Britain’s Charles the Martyr. A few were off the deep end, but most were harmless: They enjoyed mixing it up in debates on esoteric topics, preferably over drinks in silver chalices at Mory’s Temple Bar. Their far-out positions were taken, mostly, with a twinkle in the eye, and they went off to careers on Wall Street or in law firms.

In Cruz, there is still evidence of this type of debating-society conservative. In a recent interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Cruz demonstrated the mnemonic technique he used as a teenager to memorize the Constitution, describing Article I, Section 8 as “TCCNCCPCC pawn momma run: Taxes, credit, commerce, naturalization, coinage, counterfeiting, post office, copyright, courts, piracy, army, war, navy, militia . . .”

His law firm bio, still online, boasts that he “argued more cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than any other lawyer in Texas” and puts his win-loss record as 23-4. It also notes that the National Association of Attorneys General awarded him the “Best Brief Award” for five straight years.

So how to reconcile that conventionally ambitious Cruz with the one who gave a crazy victory speech on July 31 after winning the primary? There, he thanked, among others, Palin, Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Rand Paul, Ron Paul, FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Express.

Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I prefer to believe Cruz is playing the Tea Party for his own gain. The Senate can tolerate an operator more easily than another ideologue.

danamilbank@washpost.com