Ted Cruz: Principled or smug know-it-all?

Principled or know-it-all?

GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz is a lightning rod for controversy and a stickler for process

Published on March 24, 2015

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ed Cruz looked out over a sprawling audience of Iowa farmers and agribusiness leaders, people who rely on federal subsidies of ethanol, and the man who would be president stuck it to them.

Above: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) announces his candidacy on Monday at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“I know you’d like me to say I’m for the renewable fuel standard” - that’s the subsidy of their product - “that'd be the easy thing to do," he said. “But I'm going to tell you the truth.” He’d take away their subsidy, he said with a big smile.

The farmers sat on their hands.

Make or Break series: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In the coming weeks, The Post will explore a key characteristic for each of the leading contenders that could help make him or her the country’s next commander in chief - or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray
Chris Christie: The human opera takes the stage

A week earlier, in a vast ballroom at Maryland’s National Harbor, where blood-red conservatives gathered to evaluate a showcase of Republican presidential wannabes, Cruz was again the steely man of principle. He railed against Washington, slammed his opponents (“Hillary Clinton embodies the corruption of Washington”) and asked the true believers to demand of their candidates, "When have [you] been willing to stand up against Republicans?” The son of a Cuban man who saw what happens when freedom is stripped away swore that “I'll die before I let it happen again.”

This time, the crowd stood as one, roaring with admiration and hope.

His father describes Cruz as a “modern Jeremiah,” delivering the final warning before the collapse, sending an unpopular but vital message. His Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz calls him “off-the-charts brilliant.” Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and unsuccessful presidential candidate, once dubbed Cruz a “wacko bird.” His own wife says Cruz's supreme certainty had a way of being “irksome.”

It is Cruz’s ramrod devotion to principle — or, its flip side, an unyielding insistence on getting his way — that could propel him to the front ranks of Republican contenders for president or render him unelectable.

[The battle for conservative voters heats up]

Cruz, 44, was a marvel in high school, a kid who memorized the Constitution and wowed audiences with his speaking skills. In college, he was a prodigy and a pest; the same people who avoided having dinner with him went out of their way to watch him debate. As a politician, the senator from Texas is what he's always been - a lightning rod for controversy, a stickler for process, an evangelist for conservative principle, a constitutional wonk in ostrich-skin cowboy boots.

Those who find his newly announced presidential campaign thrilling and those who find the notion of Cruz in the White House disturbing agree that his devotion to principle reminds them of that of Barry Goldwater, the movement conservative and 1964 Republican presidential nominee who famously said "I'd rather be right than president" and got his wish.

Beneath Cruz’s mesmerizing speaking style — midnight-smooth delivery, never ruffled, even as he drops lacerating lines about the evils of Obamacare — and his unthreatening appearance — suits, slicked-back black hair, baby-faced complexion — how the senator would govern remains unclear. Is he a rigidly uncompromising originalist or, as Cruz argues more like Ronald Reagan, who preached conservative populism but governed as a dealmaker?

Although his father often proudly introduces his son guaranteeing that "Ted will not compromise," Cruz says he follows Reagan's approach: Push for limited government, but take what you can get. Despite the popular caricature of him as inflexible, Cruz says, "If they offer you half a loaf, you take it - and then come back for more."

Cruz speaks with the media at the Strafford County Republican Committee Chili and Chat on in Barrington, N.H., on March 15. Washington Post photojournalists used a phone app with filters to photograph the candidates like potential voters might. (Photos by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Then Cruz volunteers a story "that might help you understand me."

It's senior year in high school, just before homecoming, and the kids at the rival school in Houston have managed to steal the school flag from Cruz's Second Baptist School. Cruz, the valedictorian, calls three buddies and says it's time to exact revenge. They buy 36 rolls of toilet paper, three cans of shaving cream, toothpaste and shampoo. That night, they paper the gym at Northwest Academy, leaving behind a Hallmark card inscribed, in lipstick, with the message, "It's not nice to steal."

The janitors at Northwest spy Cruz and his gang and give chase. With Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" blaring on the cassette deck - the guys knew it as the attack theme from "Apocalypse Now" - Cruz drives the getaway vehicle, "the Green Bomb," his 1978 Ford Fairmont. Alas, the men from Northwest take down Cruz's license plate number. The next day, he is called to see the principal.

Cruz fesses up - yes, it was his car, his TP job. But asked to name his accomplices, Cruz calmly replies, "I'm not going to tell you."

"I figured you'd say that," the principal says. He pulls from his desk drawer a letter he has written and signed, asking the admission office at Princeton - which has already accepted Cruz - to rescind their offer.

Cruz will not budge. "I consider it a matter of character and integrity not to rat on my friends," he says.

Whereupon the principal calls Cruz's father, who tells his son, "Ted, just get out of high school." The son explains his devotion to the no-snitching principle, and Rafael Cruz accepts the argument. "You're right, and I'm proud of you," his dad tells him.

As it turned out, the principal had already identified the other culprits. The letter to Princeton was never sent. Cruz had stood tall - and won.

Cruz raises his hand with his father Rafael, right, while holding his daughter Caroline during his victory speech on Nov. 6, 2012, in Houston. Cruz defeated Democrat Paul Sadler to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. (David J. Phillip/AP)

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here was never a doubt that a passion for freedom and a deep suspicion of government overreach would form the core of Felito Cruz's identity.

Felito - born Rafael Edward Cruz, he didn't switch to "Ted" until his early teens, after tiring of other kids not being able to pronounce his name - was the only child of a Cuban immigrant and a woman from Delaware.

Eleanor Darragh, first in her family to attend college, was a math major who went on to work as a computer programmer at Shell Oil. She met Rafael Cruz at an oil exploration company where they both worked. He'd left Cuba in 1957 with $100 sewn into his underwear; like many other Cuban emigres, he quickly took to conservatism, drawn by its fervent anti-Communism and emphasis on personal freedoms. Eleanor was more moderate; their son's first political memory is of his parents arguing over Eleanor's vote for Jimmy Carter for president in 1976.

Cruz - who was born in Calgary, Alberta, where his parents were working in the oil and gas business - believes he inherited his mother's passion for the underdog and his father's resolute belief in the primacy of the individual and efficiency of the marketplace. Even before high school, Cruz thought about such things. He read the economics classics of Adam Smith, freemarketeer Milton Friedman and Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, a hero to American libertarians.

Ted Cruz in his own words

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“His dad pounded into him the idea that you'd better appreciate American freedom," says Bill Miller, Cruz's teacher in Sunday school and Bible study classes at Trinity Faith Fellowship in Houston. "Rafael would say, 'I could leave Cuba to come here - if you had to leave the United States, where would you go?' "

[Cruz tests the limits of conservatism]

When Felito was 13, his father signed him up for classes at the Free Enterprise Institute, where he spent hundreds of hours studying the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and other founding documents. He was one of five teens in the institute's constitutional collaborators program, in which kids memorized the Constitution, wrote speeches and performed for Rotary clubs and other groups across Texas. Cruz was the star. (He also acted in high school and was so serious about his craft that he considered going directly from high school to Hollywood. His parents talked him out of that one.)

Cruz was always ambitious about rising in politics. "I don't ever remember a time when I wasn't," he says. "The politic answer is 'I was reluctantly drawn to it.' " But politics was the main dish at the Cruz dinner table, and Ted's appetite for it was powerful.

Cruz had a presence at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. The 42nd annual CPAC featured most of the potential Republican candidates for president. (Getty Images)

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avid Panton was just 16 when he arrived at Princeton from Jamaica, a preacher's son and the first in his family to go to college. The elite campus proved to be a difficult fit. "I was academically, chronologically and culturally challenged," he says. "I didn't have many friends."

Neither did Cruz. His assigned roommate freshman year, Craig Mazin, found Cruz cocksure and politically extreme - an impression shared by others. Some students complained that Ted didn't have an off switch, that he lectured them. Some girls asked Mazin to keep Ted away from them because he was overbearing.

Cruz's political ambition was clear. "He knew what he wanted," says Michael Lubetzky, a Canadian who was close to Cruz in college and is now a lawyer in Montreal. "We talked a lot about the 'natural born' clause in the Constitution. Ted said when he was a kid, he'd checked to see if he'd be eligible to be president." (Being born to a U.S. citizen - his mother - automatically makes Cruz a citizen and eligible for the White House.)

Cruz quickly found a place in the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, Princeton's home for debate. A stellar debater, he established himself as the best on campus (and soon, best in the nation, winning one national tournament after another.) He needed a partner for the two-man competitions; he found Panton.

The two seemed superficially opposite. Panton had never debated. He wasn't nearly as conservative as Cruz. He spoke with an accent. He was black on a campus where there weren't many black students. "Ted reached out to me when I was having a hard time," Panton says. "What brought us together was Ted's kindness."

Cruz and Panton bonded over hearts, spades and video games - enormous amounts of Super Mario Bros. Cruz tutored Panton on debate and persuaded him on politics. Halfway through freshman year, they swapped roommates; Ted and David would stay together for more than three years at Princeton and then for a year at Harvard Law School. For three years, they would rank first and second nationally in debate.

The two were sometimes a world unto themselves. "For most people, including me, college is a time of developing your views, deciding what your core principles will be," Panton says. "Ted arrived with his principles fully formed. He articulated them so well that that could be intimidating. That rubbed some people the wrong way, without question."

Cevin Hynes, left, and Gary DiPiero, left center, listen to Cruz as he speaks at the Strafford County Republican Committee Chili and Chat on March 15 in Barrington, N.H. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Cruz had trouble getting his political career going at Princeton. He lost races for class president, student government and, most painfully, president of the debate panel. It wasn't for lack of trying. He created a committee to advocate for better food in dining halls. He offered a course on public speaking, putting ads in the student newspaper: "Speak well in front of others. Increase your self-confidence. Use the basics of argumentation. All in one semester!" (Part of his motivation was to pay off a $1,800 poker debt he'd incurred to upperclassmen.)

And he led a campaign against the university's proposal to lock the entryway doors on dormitories, arguing that the greater danger on campus came not from unauthorized intruders but from "date rape, or assaults by other students, which the planned system would do nothing to stop." He lost that battle.

Panton - "the warm, jolly one," Lubetzky says, "while Ted was the uber-serious one" - won the campus's top post, president of the student government. Cruz finally won a spot on a joint faculty-student council. In that role, he took on the issue that won him his greatest prominence on campus: He slammed the university's president for running Princeton "by personal edict." (Two decades later, Cruz would accuse President Obama of "acting as a monarch" and ruling "by executive diktat.")

Cruz said Princeton's president, Harold Shapiro, had "blatantly violated the spirit of the honorary degree process" when he bypassed the faculty-student council and granted an honorary degree to then-President George H.W. Bush. Similarly, Cruz blasted Shapiro for banning beer kegs from campus events - again, without consulting the council. Cruz didn't object to Bush getting the degree, just as he didn't care whether campus parties would be allowed to feature kegs of beer. The point in both cases was the principle and the process.

"That's Ted," says Lubetzky. "For Ted, it's all about following the rules. And that's why some people really didn't like him. He was so driven, so serious, always pushing."

"That's Ted," says Rob Marks, a fellow student who was Cruz's liberal rival on the debate team. "There was no emotion. It was pure logic. In Ted's mind, he was never wrong. He viewed himself as ideologically pure."

"That's Ted," says Robert George, a politics professor and prominent conservative theorist who was a mentor and adviser to Cruz. "He's interested in whether the exercise of authority was legitimate. Questions of how we decide things are not technical. They are moral."

In Ted’s mind, he was never wrong.

Edward Bergman, a New Jersey lawyer who taught Cruz in a course on alternative dispute resolution, says Cruz's classroom manner and written work displayed a smugness that made him unpopular.

In the course, Cruz wrote a final paper concluding that alternatives meant to ease the glut of court cases nationwide are "obstacles to the people's rights" to trial and due process.

"There he is, in a nutshell," Bergman says. "He was somebody who gave the impression that very complex issues are really not so complex, and he can tell you the superior, correct view. It's a smug, know-it-all attitude about the world."

It was Cruz's self-certainty, not his ideology, that made him unpopular, says Marks, now a lawyer in Northern Virginia. "He reasoned through logic, and he could get you to realize what was at the core of your argument, like on abortion. Ted would push you to admit that if you're pro-choice, you think a fetus is not life. He really pounded people on that, and people knew he was brilliant, but it just irked them."

Marks once watched Cruz get into an argument with a restaurateur at a sub shop in New Haven, Conn., where they were in a debate tournament. Cruz and the owner faced off over what was included in the price of a dish.

"It got out of control," Marks says. "Ted just trying to apply rules of logic to a situation where they just didn't apply. The owner asked him to leave."

Cruz speaks to a mob of reporters on Capitol Hill on the 16th day of the federal government shutdown in October 2013. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

When Cruz stood on the Senate floor and railed against Obamacare for 21 hours and 19 minutes, taking time out from his dissection of the health-care law to read Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham" to his daughters, those who have known him best through the decades saw neither an ideologue nor a bully.

They saw in that filibuster in 2013 and in the government shutdown that followed a man simply following his principles.

To conclude that Cruz is an extremist or narcissist is the wrong critique, says George, the professor who has remained closest to Cruz: "The responsible criticism of Ted is to say that statesmanship requires a bending, a flexibility, and to ask if Ted is capable of that."

The professor was surprised to see Cruz go into politics rather than academia. "He loves intellectual argument so much," George says. "The very features that caused me to think he was headed for academia are those that make some people find him pedantic."

Seen on a television screen in the Senate Press Gallery, Cruz speaks during the seventh hour of his 2013 filibuster in opposition to the Affordable Care Act. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Encouraged by a series of like-minded mentors - his father; George; former federal judge Michael Luttig; Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, for whom Cruz clerked; and Chuck Cooper, a Washington lawyer Cruz worked for - Cruz remained "a man of very strong beliefs," Cooper says, "unwilling to go along to get along, willing to endure criticism."

But through those years, Cruz has also changed, friends say. Panton credits Heidi Cruz, a managing director of Goldman Sachs in Houston, with smoothing some of her husband's rough edges. "He's mellowed greatly, and getting married and having two daughters did that," the longtime friend says.

Heidi Cruz - they met working on George W. Bush's 2000 campaign - says that a decade or two ago, "people might have found Ted irksome because they couldn't get him off principle. As the years go by and you stay on your principles, you grow into yourself. He's learned not to preach at people. People don't want to be judged."

Ted Cruz takes pride when the Wall Street Journal refers to him as leader of a "rump kamikaze caucus" in the Senate -- the word "kamikaze" was once used to describe Reagan. He analogizes himself to Uber, as it sweeps aside the dust balls of a taxi industry long buffered from market forces by government regulation. He offers himself as a human disruptive app.

In Iowa at the agriculture summit, Cruz moved past the uncomfortable moment about ethanol and fed the audience a heaping plate of rhetorical delights: "abolish the IRS"; the EPA is "completely lawless"; over the past 17 years, the planet has seen "no warming whatsoever."

He wrapped up with the story of a time back home in Texas when a "6-foot-6 African American guard walked up to me and said, 'I didn't vote for you, but I'll say this: You've done what you said you'd do.' "

The farmers whose subsidy Cruz would strip away stood to give him the warmest ovation of the day.

Cruz addresses the crowd during CPAC in February. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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