The Man in the Arena

During his first year in the U.S. Senate, Ted Cruz has proved that he can throw a punch (and take one), rally his troops (and unite his enemies), and become the most influential freshman in Congress (if not the most reviled). The question is, Does that strategy lead to victory or defeat?
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

On a crisp autumn morning, Ted Cruz emerged from the headquarters of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., and dashed toward a black BMW that was waiting to whisk him to the Capitol. Cruz was moving quickly, dressed in a slightly baggy charcoal suit with black ostrich cowboy boots, but he made it only a few steps beyond the building’s classical facade before he paused, coughed, and seemed to lose his focus.  

He had just finished giving a speech, and he had been in fine form, ignoring the lectern to speak directly to the crowd without notes. The subject at hand was Bond v. United States, a Supreme Court case involving a wronged wife in Pennsylvania who had tried to poison her husband’s mistress and been prosecuted under a federal law, the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act, based on an international treaty. “The topic this morning is not Obamacare,” Cruz had said, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet, “but is instead two of my favorite topics in the world, one of which is U.S. national sovereignty and the other of which is the structural constraints that are present in the Constitution that protect our liberty.”  

Over the next hour or so, Cruz reminisced about Medellín v. Texas, one of eight cases he argued before the Supreme Court, by most accounts brilliantly, as solicitor general of Texas. Both cases were examples of executive overreach, he argued—an offense that has been among his many concerns about the Affordable Care Act. After fielding a couple of questions from the audience, he wrapped up to rapturous applause and scooted offstage.  

But now that Cruz was out of the spotlight, he looked a bit worn. A bug had been going around his family for about a month; his wife, Heidi, had needed three full weeks to recover. Plus there was the fact that his first year in D.C. had been totally bonkers. Only a month earlier, he had been square in the middle of that year’s signature congressional crisis, the federal government shutdown, which had cost the national economy some $24 billion, according to one analysis, and had left a majority of Americans even more unimpressed with Washington than usual. Cruz, who had been in office about nine months when the stalemate began, on October 1, had been a key player in the drama. He emerged as the ringleader of a Republican effort to defund the Affordable Care Act, which Cruz insisted was “the biggest-job killer in the country” and therefore bad for millions of Americans, particularly those groups he identified as the country’s most vulnerable: African Americans, Hispanics, single mothers, and young people.

Democrats accused him of single-handedly jeopardizing the entire country’s economic stability and global credibility. Plenty of Republicans were irritated too. Several of Cruz’s colleagues took him to task for being reckless; others complained that while they were against Obamacare too, he had pursued a path that had no possible chance of succeeding. Among Republicans who identify with the tea party, however, Cruz was a bona fide hero. If not the leader of his party, he had become the leader of that faction. And though his national approval ratings were dismal, in Texas his standing was secure. By November, Public Policy Polling would find him with the highest approval rating of any major statewide elected official in Texas, at 47 percent.

To simultaneously elicit such admiration and such scorn is unusual for a freshman senator and, in a way, impressive. As 2013 drew to a close, observers were increasingly wondering whether the 43-year-old Cruz was thinking of running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. It was not an unreasonable thought, despite Cruz’s youth and his relative inexperience. Barack Obama had served less than four years in the Senate before being elected president in 2008, and Cruz had already made a greater impression on Congress than Obama had during his time there. The problem was that it was a distinctly polarizing one. By leading the fight against Obamacare, Cruz had endeared himself to the Republican base to a greater degree than most of the party’s presidential prospects had—including Rick Perry, whose decision not to run for reelection as governor of Texas had fueled speculation that he would take one more swing at the White House. But in the course of doing so, Cruz had apparently alienated the moderates and independents, who decide any presidential election. If such voters looked at his overall record, they would see a more complex character than Cruz’s national caricature would suggest. Whether they would be willing to take a look was very much an open question. 

As we settled into the car for the short ride to the Capitol, I raced through some questions that were, for once, not about Obamacare. 

“Do you see yourself as pragmatic or ideological?”  

“Principled. And interested in results. One of the most powerful critiques of the Obama economic agenda is a pragmatic critique: it simply isn’t working—it is destroying jobs.”

“Are your socially conservative political beliefs grounded in your religious ones?” 

“My personal faith is something that’s integral to who I am. But in my view, in the public policy arena, the proper basis for public policy should derive not from the personal religious views of the officeholder but from principles of individual liberty and our Constitution.”

“Do you think social conservatism and fiscal conservatism naturally align?” 

“I think they certainly can and often do, but not always.” A fit of coughing overtook Cruz as we arrived at the Capitol, and when he opened the door to get some air, he bonked his head. “Ow,” he said quietly, almost to himself. 

“Do you mind losing a fight?”

“Not at all. If you never lose a fight, then you’re not taking on anything of consequence or anything difficult. I’m a big believer in Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech—which, indeed, for years has hung on the wall of my office—about the man in the arena whose face is marred by blood and sweat

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