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 and who may know victories or defeats but is actually fighting to make a difference.” 

As we headed up the Capitol steps, I realized that Cruz’s response to the previous question reminded me of something I had mentally summarized as the Barry Goldwater scenario—the prospect that Cruz could be the kind of Republican who could win the party’s presidential nomination but alarm voters in a general election, just as Goldwater had in 1964 against LBJ.

“If you had a Goldwater scenario, that would be okay with you?”

“Not at all,” he said, “because we have a limited window to turn this country around. We can’t keep going down this path without permanently jeopardizing the future for subsequent generations. And I think the window to turn things around is not decades, it is a matter of a few years. There comes a point where the hole is too deep, where our debt is too large, where our liberties have been too profoundly eroded, that there’s no turning back.”

We were interrupted as I went through the security checkpoint at the entrance to the Capitol. Cruz paused until I had been cleared, then jumped in exactly where he had left off.

“I don’t think we’re there yet, but there is an urgency to these fiscal and economic issues unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“That reminds me of what President Obama used to say during the primary in 2008, when people asked him why he was running for president after only a few years in the Senate,” I said. “He would say, ‘There’s a thing called “too late,” and that hour is almost here.’ ”

We stared at each other for a moment. 

“I didn’t know he said that,” Cruz said innocently.

“I thought it was remarkable,” I said. “Especially in a primary.”

For the first and last time since I began interviewing him, in July, Cruz said nothing at all in response.

To understand how far Ted Cruz has come, go back a year and half to June 28, 2012—the day that changed everything.

In 2011, when he had declared his campaign for the Senate to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison, hardly anyone had noticed, and those who had were, for the most part, pessimistic. That’s not to say Cruz was a lightweight—quite the opposite, in fact. He had the résumé of a congressman, being a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law, a champion on the college debate circuit, a Baptist, and a family man. Still, few people thought he had a scrap of a chance. It was widely assumed that the Republican nominee would be the lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, an incumbent statewide officeholder backed by the party establishment and buoyed by his own personal fortune.

Cruz had never held elected office. He and his wife were well-to-do but hardly rich enough to blow millions of dollars on a campaign for fun. In contrast to several outsider-type candidates around the country who had won seats in Congress in 2010, Cruz wasn’t running against a Washington insider. Though Dewhurst had kept a fairly low public profile as lieutenant governor, he was a Texas official, and no state had expressed more opposition to the Obama administration than this one. 

And although there had been indications in the previous election cycle that even in deep-red Texas, tea partiers and libertarians were fed up with the party establishment, Cruz wasn’t exactly a darling of the grass roots. He had, after all, worked for President George W. Bush, who had become unpopular among many Republicans by the end of his administration. For that matter, Cruz’s wife had worked for Bush too—the couple had met during the 2000 campaign—and she had gone on to work for Goldman Sachs, one of the banks held in great suspicion by many tea partiers. Compared with Dewhurst, Cruz may have been an outsider, but compared with the actual outsiders, Cruz seemed like someone who might be invited to play late-night poker games with the political elite.

Cruz himself was evidently undaunted by all of this. Throughout the campaign, he tried to distinguish himself as the true conservative—a tricky task given that all the candidates were conservative, some arguably more so than Cruz. He responded by emphasizing his approach to politics as much as his stance on issues, by casting himself as a fighter. Instead of simply reeling off a list of positions, his website referred to his “proven record.” Campaigning around the state, he told his audiences over and over that he expected results and that he would consider himself a failure if he didn’t get them. Cruz explicitly contrasted himself with the “timid” Dewhurst; the lieutenant governor was, he argued, “ducking” the grass roots by eschewing debates and other public appearances. 

This was, perhaps, a necessary approach, given that there was so little distance between Cruz and Dewhurst on the issues. It was also an approach that resonated with the grass roots. There was really no question that a conservative would win the Senate seat, but the prospect of a freshman senator who would punch above his weight in Washington was tantalizing for those Republicans who had been in a temper ever since Obama, with his professorial disdain for the rowdy right wing, became president. And Dewhurst—a decorous man and one who clearly hadn’t been expecting a slugfest—would eventually make the mistake of fighting back on Cruz’s terms. The former solicitor general was, the lieutenant governor observed, just another lawyer—he had no track record in elected office at all. That was true enough, but in offering that particular argument, Dewhurst had accepted his opponent’s framework, and Cruz responded with what Robert T. Garrett, writing in the Dallas Morning News, aptly described as “political jujitsu.” “We have way too many lawyers in Congress,” Cruz said in one radio interview. “But I’m not running as a lawyer. I’m running as a fighter.” 

The strategy paid off. At the beginning of 2011, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found Cruz with 3 percent support. By autumn, the figure had crept up to 10 percent. In February 2012 his support had swelled to 27 percent. 

It was a clear trajectory, and one that Cruz was working for furiously—and without many high-profile backers, at least in Texas. In 2011 he got some support from national conservatives: he received an early endorsement from Mike Lee, a tea party Republican from Utah who had been elected to the Senate in 2010, and National Review put him on its cover. Most of Texas’s Republican leaders endorsed Dewhurst, though; the party establishment simply didn’t take Cruz seriously.

But when the primary was finally held, in May 2012—delayed for two months by litigation related to redistricting maps passed by the Legislature—Cruz earned 34 percent of the vote, enough to push Dewhurst into a runoff. That caught the establishment’s attention. Still, the candidates seemed to be at an impasse. They continued to argue over who was more conservative. The problem remained that, in terms of the policy issues, you practically needed a magnifying glass to find where the two disagreed. 

And so June 28, 2012, would prove to be a critical date. That was the day the Supreme Court upheld key aspects of the Affordable Care Act, providing Cruz with exactly the opening he needed, at exactly the moment he needed it. The Affordable Care Act was deeply unpopular among Texas Republicans, tea party or otherwise. Both candidates had opposed it and promised to fight for its repeal if elected. But the distinction Cruz had drawn between himself and Dewhurst had suddenly become highly relevant. Cruz argued that he, not Dewhurst, was the one who would be the man in the arena, as Teddy Roosevelt had put it, with blood and sweat on his face. “Obamacare underscores the fundamental difference between me and David Dewhurst,” Cruz said. “Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst is a deal-maker. He is a conciliator.” 

The argument worked. In the May primary Dewhurst had received about 628,000 votes to Cruz’s 481,000. In the July runoff the totals were reversed. Dewhurst won 480,126 votes, but 631,812 Texans had turned out for Cruz. It was the biggest upset in Texas politics in a generation. To find anything like it, you have to go back to 1961, when a conservative economics professor named John Tower thumped Democrat Bill Blakely in the race to fill LBJ’s Senate seat, making Tower the first Republican elected statewide since Reconstruction. 

That Cruz managed to win the Senate race was partly, no doubt, due to luck. On the other hand, he had put himself in a position to be lucky; he had done something that was widely deemed impossible all the way up to the moment he actually did it. He began by ignoring the conventional wisdom, and he won by promising to be a fighter. Keeping that in mind, it’s easier to understand Cruz’s subsequent year in the Senate.  

In addition to their regular offices in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, every senator has a little bolt-hole in the Capitol itself. These are assigned on the basis of seniority, meaning that Cruz’s is a windowless nook with a slanted ceiling at the top of a tightly wound spiral staircase. At the end of October, after casting his vote at noon, the senator said that he could spare some more time, and we set off for this crow’s nest. I wanted to ask him some more non-Obamacare questions. His favorite novel, he told me, was Atlas Shrugged. I may have looked disappointed at that answer, because after a pause Cruz volunteered that he likes to read biographies and that he had, for example, read about thirty biographies of Ronald Reagan. He singled out one of them, Edmund Morris’s Dutch, as “a profound disappointment.” 

“It has the feel, almost, of reporting on some alien life form on Mars,” Cruz said. “Morris also doesn’t seem to care for politics much. So, for example, the 1984 reelection campaign comprises, maybe, a page and a half in the book. Two hundred pages in the book concern Reagan’s boyhood, and the ’84 election is a page and a half. Reagan was historically significant in transforming the world not because he was a lifeguard or played football in college but because he stood resolutely for his principles and in doing so transformed the world.” His favorite biography of Reagan, he said, was the one by Dinesh D’Souza, in which Reagan is born on page 38 and is working for General Electric by page 52. 

That made sense, in a way. Cruz himself has invoked personal history in the political sphere mostly by telling audiences about how his father, Rafael Cruz, emigrated from Cuba to the United States in the fifties with $100 sewn into his underwear and worked his way through the University of Texas washing dishes. Asking the senator about his own early life had, however, proved to be a fairly bland exercise. He was perfectly polite about it, but he didn’t seem to take any more interest in his own boyhood than he did in Reagan’s. This was clear last August, when the Dallas Morning News pointed out that Cruz, having been born in Canada, was still possibly a dual citizen; there was no indication that he had formally renounced his Canadian status. It was a quirk of the international bureaucracy that apparently came as a surprise to the senator too.  

In any case, Cruz was born in Alberta, in 1970. His father and his mother, Eleanor, a Rice graduate who was born in Delaware, had moved there to work in the oil industry. The couple separated when Cruz was a baby, and Eleanor brought him back to Houston on her own, although Rafael rejoined the family when Cruz was a toddler. 

By high school, Cruz was on the path to his current career, and he has pursued it with relentless focus. After graduating from Second Baptist School, in Houston, he went east to Princeton, where he wrote his senior thesis on the Ninth and Tenth amendments. After college, he enrolled at Harvard Law, then spent two years as a law clerk, at Virginia’s Fourth Circuit and the Supreme Court, for William Rehnquist. From there he worked in private practice before joining Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign as a domestic policy adviser and then as a legal counsel, when the bungled results in Florida sent the final decision about the election to the Supreme Court. Among his colleagues on the Bush campaign was a blond Californian named Heidi Nelson. They married in 2001—Cruz considers himself to be the quiet one in the relationship—and they have two young daughters, Caroline and Catherine.

After Bush became president, Cruz worked for the administration at the Federal Trade Commission, but in 2003, when he was offered the job as Texas’ solicitor general under newly elected attorney general Greg Abbott, he hardly had to think it over. Neither, for that matter, did Abbott. He had never met Cruz before interviewing him for the position, he told me, but on the basis of that conversation, he was sold. “He had a calm brilliance, almost an elegant brilliance,” said Abbott.

Perhaps more important was that Cruz shared Abbott’s strategic vision for the office. The solicitor general is, in one regard, an attorney general’s field commander, and Abbott told me that he had always aspired to lead the most aggressive operation in the country—even back then, when the federal government was led by Bush. The two of them made it a point, Abbott explained, to monitor legislative developments in every state, so that Texas could volunteer to lead any fight brewing between the states and the federal government. 

It was a job that required a certain taste for brawling. Abbott—who is, like Cruz, unusually cerebral—seems to take some pleasure in describing his work that way: “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.” It was also a job that required a flair for strategy and tactics, and Cruz has a talent for both. It’s worth pointing this out, because some of Cruz’s colleagues in D.C. see him as someone without much interest in either, which is partly why back in March, Senator John McCain had dismissed Cruz and several other tea partiers as “wacko birds.”

When I had asked Cruz whether he sees himself as pragmatic or ideological, he had answered the question succinctly—“principled and interested in results”—but later, in his nook in the Capitol, the issue came up again. At times during the year, the senator had seemed to approach things from an abstract or ideological perspective. When the Senate was debating a gun-control bill, for example, after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, he had annoyed Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California, by asking her whether she would deem it appropriate to abridge the protections laid out in the First and Fourth amendments the same way she was proposing with regard to the Second, prompting her to snap at him, “I’m not a sixth grader.”

In other debates, though, Cruz had seemed to be more focused on outcomes than theories. That was the case when he joined Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator from New York, in her effort to address sexual assault in the military by taking the decision-making process for pursuing such cases out of the regular chain of command. Cruz told me that he had been undecided at the beginning of the committee hearings on the subject, and that Gillibrand’s arguments had persuaded him. “What the military is doing now, in good faith, isn’t working, and moreover, a number of our allies, including Great Britain and Israel, have made similar decisions, and the data demonstrate that the rates of reporting have increased.” 

Overall, despite his image—both his supporters and his detractors would probably describe him as a true believer—Cruz had said any number of things, in public and in our interviews, that suggested he was more of a wonk than a wacko bird. “Indeed,” he had told me, “the reason I am a conservative is that I am convinced free-market policies maximize the ability of those struggling to climb the economic ladder. If I didn’t believe that were true, I wouldn’t be a conservative.” So I was wondering if Cruz’s reputation for flipping over tables reflects a lingering habit from his years as solicitor general, when he was tasked with advancing a position—the state of Texas’s position—rather than offering one of his own or working for a compromise. 

“Solicitor general, by and large, is not a policy-making position,” Cruz acknowledged, and added that on several occasions he had been charged with defending things he wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about, such as Texas’ school finance system. “As a policy matter, school choice is a deep passion of mine. But it was not my role as solicitor general to advocate for school choice, nor was it the role of the Texas Supreme Court to mandate that Texas provide school choice; that is properly the role of the Legislature. 

“But I’ll give you another example that would push back slightly on the suggestion that as solicitor general you’re less pragmatic,” he continued. “In both public service and private practice, I was fortunate to enjoy multiple litigation victories in cases where the outside world deemed the odds all but insurmountable. And I think the way to do so is to focus very pragmatically on how to win the case. As Sun Tzu said, every battle is won before it is fought. It is won by choosing the terrain on which the battle is fought.” 

Once again, he cited Medellín v. Texas, the case he had discussed at the Heritage Foundation. It concerned a gang member named José Medellín, who had been sentenced to death in Texas for his role in the 1993 rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston. There was no question that Medellín was guilty—he had confessed—but he was also a Mexican national, and at the time of the arrest, no one had notified him of his right under a 1963 treaty called the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations to contact consular authorities. In 2004 the International Court of Justice had ruled that 51 Mexican nationals in such situations, including Medellín, had the right to a review of their convictions. The next year President Bush issued a memorandum referencing the World Court’s decision and ordered the states to comply. Texas balked.

“The narrative of the other side was straightforward,” Cruz said. “It was ‘Texas cannot flout the treaty obligations of the United States of America. Texas cannot thumb its nose at the federal government, and at the president of the United States, and at every nation on the face of the earth. And besides, you know how those Texans are about capital punishment anyway.’ If that’s what the case is about, we lose. If the question is ‘Can Texas defy the treaty obligations of the United States?’ we lose. And that’s why just about every observer said there’s no way Texas can win.” 

Instead Abbott and Cruz decided to approach it as a separation of powers case. By ordering Texas to comply with the World Court’s ruling, Cruz argued, Bush was ignoring Congress’s authority to implement treaties in accordance with existing American law. He was also snubbing the Supreme Court, which hadn’t yet weighed in on the subject. 

“At the end of the day, the court adopted our narrative,” Cruz concluded. “And we didn’t just win, we won six to three, which astonished observers. I’m convinced that framing it as a separation of powers case instead of a federalism case was critical to winning it.” 

I recalled that in his 2010 book, Fed Up!, Perry mentions the case—which was, as he put it, argued by Texas’s “able” solicitor general—but frames it as one centered on federalism. Perry also includes some sharp words about those on the Supreme Court who dissented in the ruling: “Amazingly, however, three justices did not agree, perhaps believing instead that international law should trump the laws of Texas.” 

“Yes, I know,” said Cruz, and left it at that, politely. 

A few days after the shutdown had ended, about a week before I met with Cruz in D.C., we were in downtown Houston, in a chilly communal conference room down the hall from Cruz’s new office. The lease had begun on the first of the month, but the staff hadn’t been able to move in until the government reopened; the senator himself didn’t even have keys yet. “What I try to keep in mind every day are the 26 million Texans that I’m elected to represent and that I’m responsible to stand for and fight for,” Cruz said. “And that has been what has given me strength.”  

“Was it a situation where you felt like you needed extra strength?” I asked.

“There have certainly been a lot of rocks thrown.” He paused, and the low buzz of the fluorescent lights filled the silence. “But you know, I’ve observed before, given the choice between being appreciated in Washington, D.C., and reviled in Texas or appreciated in Texas and reviled in Washington, D.C., I’ll choose the latter one hundred out of one hundred times.”  

“Reviled” wasn’t too strong a word. In the summer of 2013 a handful of tea party–type Republicans, including Cruz, had come up with a last-ditch plan to block the implementation of the Affordable Care Act—which had been scheduled to take effect on October 1—by defunding it. Congress had budgeted for expenses only through the end of September; they expected to pass another budget bill and raise the country’s debt ceiling after returning from the August recess. The tea party reasoned that Congress could pass an appropriations bill funding everything other than the law in question.

As Cruz later explained it to me, there were four parts to the plan: First, Republicans would work to engage the grass roots in support of the cause. Second, the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans, would pass a bill funding all the federal government’s activities except Obamacare. Third, Republicans in the Senate—which is controlled by Democrats—would unite in support of the House’s bill. “And then step four,” Cruz said, “was to pick off red-state Democrats to stand with us and listen to the American people.”

Cruz cheerfully acknowledged, at the time that the plan was hatched, that it was unlikely to succeed. That was, in fact, part of his pitch to the grass roots as he trundled around Texas in August promoting the campaign: only if millions of Americans called their representatives in Congress and signed the online petition he had launched in support of the effort, he explained, was there a chance that the American people could make Washington listen. 

If the point was to rally the base, or to raise his national name recognition, Cruz certainly succeeded. By September some two million people had signed his online petition, and he had become a ubiquitous presence in the conservative media. The effort to defund the health-care reform, however, ultimately failed—but not before triggering several weeks of spectacular political dysfunction, starring the freshman senator from Texas.   

On September 20 the House passed an appropriations bill that defunded the Affordable Care Act—step two of the plan Cruz described—and sent it to the Senate. That’s when the trouble started. Perhaps half the Senate Republicans seemed sympathetic to the defunding campaign. The rest were openly against it. “I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of,” said Richard Burr, of North Carolina. “The American people want commonsense solutions,” said Susan Collins, of Maine. “They don’t want us to pursue policies that are pointless.” But the most damning critique came from Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, a staunch conservative who focused on the math rather than the messenger. Cruz had never explained how President Obama could be moved to sign a bill defunding his own signature law, and without a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate, Coburn observed, there was no getting around a veto. 

The Senate, accordingly, stripped the defunding language out and sent it back to the House. That chamber, though, had fallen into disarray. The tea party Republicans were in no mood to compromise, and without their support, House speaker John Boehner was apparently reluctant to hold a vote on the Senate’s version of the bill. On October 1 the federal government began its partial shutdown, and people began hurling accusations at one another about who was to blame. The Democrats blamed the Republicans. The House blamed the Senate. The president blamed Congress. And almost everyone blamed Cruz.

And Cruz, really, had only himself to blame for that. On the afternoon of September 24, he had taken to the Senate floor and begun a marathon speech against the law. Technically speaking, it wasn’t a filibuster; according to Senate rules, Cruz would have to stop by noon the next day. But it was an attention-grabbing turn, and by the time he ceded the floor—just before noon, after going at it for nearly 21 hours—Cruz had cast himself as the leader of the opposition to Obamacare. Unsurprisingly, that made him look like the leader of the shutdown. 

Making matters worse was that at the time of Cruz’s pseudo-filibuster, the country was facing more than a federal government shutdown: it was facing the prospect of defaulting on its debt payments. Many economists were warning against this in the gravest possible terms; the United States is the largest economic power in the world, and the American dollar is the world’s most important currency of last resort. Over the next few weeks, as the shutdown continued and the deadline for raising the debt ceiling drew closer, Cruz was excoriated by almost everyone. Even some conservative activists felt that he had taken things too far. “He pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away,” said Grover Norquist, a longtime anti-tax activist.

The situation ended anticlimactically. On October 16 Senate leaders announced they would vote on a budget deal that day, and Boehner indicated that the House would accept it. As the hour approached, speculation was rampant that Cruz had some other trick up his sleeve, that he would vote against holding the vote, thereby forcing the Senate to delay its passage of the bill, after which point the country would have been forced into default, and so on. There was, of course, no logical reason for Cruz to do that. His stated goal had been to defund the health-care law, and once the deal was announced, he conceded that the battle had been lost—“There’s nothing to be gained from delaying this vote one day or two days. The outcome will be the same.” For that matter, Cruz isn’t particularly sneaky. If he had concocted another scheme to stop Obamacare, he probably would have issued a press release. The speculation was odd, in other words. But it was also a measure of how much attention Cruz had commanded and how much influence Washington thought, or feared, he had. 

A few hours later, the Senate had voted, the bill had passed, and default had been averted. Cruz remained, in most quarters, a pariah, and the personal attacks were still pouring in by the time I saw him in Houston a few days later. But even that afternoon Cruz didn’t seem subdued for long. If anything, he was defiant. “Where the plan went awry was in step three,” he told me. “Unfortunately, we failed to unify Senate Republicans. And indeed, a number of Senate Republicans made the decision not only to not stand with the House Republicans but to actively, aggressively, vocally attack the House Republicans and lead the charge to stop the efforts to defund Obamacare.” He was dismissive of the suggestion that Senate Republicans who opposed the defunding campaign had merely disagreed on tactics. In his view, the alternative strategy they sometimes offered—winning the 2014 elections, with a view toward repealing the Affordable Care Act—was naive, if not disingenuous. Even if Republicans retake the Senate, he observed, Obama will still be president; there won’t be a Republican in the White House until 2017 at the earliest. “At that point,” he asked, “does anyone realistically think there’s any prospect of unwinding the damage Obamacare has done after it has been implemented?” 

Later that month, when we were leaving the little office in the Capitol, Cruz paused at the door, as if he had just thought of something. I hadn’t asked about the Affordable Care Act at all that day, but he evidently had a few parting thoughts about it. “We’ve been having conversations throughout this battle over Obamacare,” he began, “and it is interesting, at times, to see the vindication of subsequent events.” 

With the debt ceiling drama resolved for the time being, the news had been focused on the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, which was going about as poorly as possible, and Cruz cited three developments from the previous week. First, some two million Americans had been told they would have to find new health insurance; second, the Obama administration had known, despite the president’s assurances to the contrary, that people who were happy with their current insurance wouldn’t necessarily be able to keep it; and third, a number of Senate Democrats had broken with the White House to call for various delays or changes to the law. 

“There’s a rich irony in that,” Cruz said. “Just a couple of weeks ago, almost every voice in establishment Washington described those of us leading the fight against Obamacare as radical, crazy, and delusional to suggest that the Democrats would ever, ever, ever go along with anything like delaying Obamacare. Two weeks later, ten Democrats are.”

I was skeptical. The Democrats in question, I argued, were reacting to the federal government’s catastrophically buggy website. No one had anticipated that, Cruz included, so even if they were getting spooked now, that didn’t mean the defunding strategy had been viable then.  

“We’re talking two weeks, though,” Cruz said. “Not that much has changed in the last two weeks.”

I disagreed. As he had noted about a minute earlier, what had happened in the last two weeks was that millions of Americans had started experiencing actual problems with the Affordable Care Act.  

Ye-e-es,” he said, and sighed. “My point is, the more Obamacare goes into effect, the more people see it isn’t working.” 

For some reason that exchange stuck with me, and later I thought it over. Cruz had gone out of his way to tell me that he was feeling vindicated. But it wasn’t because he had publicly predicted some of the effects of the Affordable Care Act. Cruz was feeling vindicated about the strategy. His rebuke was only for the Republicans who had scoffed at it and thereby, in his view, doomed the effort. I wasn’t convinced, because Cruz had never really addressed Coburn’s objection: even if the Senate had voted to defund the Affordable Care Act, President Obama could have vetoed that bill. On the other hand, the last time Cruz tried something that everyone else thought was crazy, he ended up winning a seat in the Senate. And then, too, I remembered: battles are won before they’re fought by choosing the terrain on which they’re fought.

In recent years the Republican Party, around the country, has been a noticeably dyspeptic coalition of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, tea partiers, and libertarians. The 2016 presidential primary will therefore be a battle over the direction of the party as much as the nomination. The establishment would like to see a nominee who can bridge the party’s internal divisions and swing votes in the general election, like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Jeb Bush. Many Republican primary voters, however, will hold out for a candidate committed to their key concerns. The Republican base isn’t looking for crossover appeal, it’s looking for someone who will fight for the cause.

Which explains why leading the polarizing and seemingly self-destructive battle to defund the Affordable Care Act may prove to have been a shrewd move on Cruz’s part. For a Republican who may have his eye on the 2016 presidential primary, having been the last man in the arena fighting against Obamacare is a pretty good campaign credential. Things haven’t changed that much since the 2012 Senate campaign: the law is unpopular with Republican primary voters. And, significantly, no other issue is equally unpopular with the various factions of the Republican coalition. 

By making this his central issue, Cruz has won over conservative activists. At the same time, he hasn’t necessarily implicated himself in something that moderates can never forgive. Many of Cruz’s Republican colleagues in Congress derided his defunding strategy, but not a single one of them voted for the law in the first place. At the end of the day, it wasn’t just the tea party that was leery of the Affordable Care Act. If the law represents a major and potentially transformative expansion of America’s safety net, it also represents a major and potentially transformative expansion of government power. 

There were certainly moments last year when the situation seemed to have gotten out of Cruz’s control, and at the end of the year, polling, in Texas and around the country, showed him to be an unusually controversial figure. No national politician was more popular with the tea party, but Democrats disapproved of Cruz, as did most self-described independents; even moderate Republicans were dubious. On the other hand, Cruz has five years left in a six-year term, and 2016 is almost three years away. And if he does decide to run for president, the skepticism of the moderates might turn out to be a strangely valuable asset. 

Since the rise of the tea party movement, Republican activists have been on the lookout for signs of latent moderation. Even the incumbents who have always been considered conservative are suddenly coming under scrutiny. It happened to Rick Perry: during his ill-fated campaign for the 2012 presidential nomination, the longest-serving governor in Texas history was taken to task for minor doctrinal lapses, like the fact that he had signed the state’s 2001 law authorizing in-state tuition for certain undocumented students. It’s happening in this year’s Republican primaries. In December Steve Stockman, a tea party congressman from Houston, announced a primary challenge to “the liberal John Cornyn”—Texas’ senior senator, who had, in 2012, posted the second-most-conservative voting record in the Senate, according to a ranking by the National Journal.

An irony is that if not for the fight against Obamacare, Cruz could have been vulnerable to such purity tests too. He is clearly more focused on fiscal issues than social ones, and he doesn’t use the economy as a proxy for the culture wars. He has repeatedly said that encouraging economic growth should be Congress’s number-one goal; that being the case, he’s disagreed with the party’s strictest budget hawks. “I think Republicans get their priorities wrong at times by focusing too much on austerity,” he told me in Houston. “As much as spending is out of control, given the choice between spending cuts and economic growth, I choose growth one hundred out of one hundred times.” He’s also chided Republicans for failing to reach out to the voters that Mitt Romney notoriously summarized as “the 47 percent” during the presidential campaign. “The top one percent in this country now have the highest share of our income since 1928, under President Obama. The rich do fine with government control of the economy. It’s not about them. It’s about everybody else.”

Similarly, Cruz’s central argument against the Affordable Care Act, in fact, has been that the law is stifling job creation; he wasn’t going around like Sarah Palin, warning that government medicine would lead to death panels. “From a conservative’s perspective,” he told me, “I have no problem if Massachusetts chooses to implement government-controlled health care or if states choose to implement socialized health care. It’s within their constitutional authority to do so, and if people want to live under that regime, they can do so.” 

Cruz has shown a conspicuous amount of enthusiasm for the Second Amendment; in the autumn, after going pheasant hunting in Iowa, he swiftly updated his Twitter avatar with a picture from the trip. Other than that, he’s not unusually heated about  social issues. He told me that although he’s against drug legalization, he sees the potential for bipartisan cooperation to reform American drug laws, “to make them more fair and more effective.” He has joined with libertarians in criticizing the National Security Agency’s domestic data mining. He is against gay marriage, but in the dutiful way of a Republican politician who isn’t all that bothered by the concept, and he has said several times that he thinks that issue should be left to the states. When I asked him whether he thinks the Republican coalition has room for people who are socially liberal—specifically people who are pro-choice and people who support gay marriage—he seemed taken aback by the question. “Of course!” he said. “I don’t share those views, but I think in any two-party system you welcome people with a variety of views.” 

Tea party activists have turned on Republican politicians for saying less than that. Yet Cruz has insulated himself from such challenges more effectively than any other Republican on the national stage. Partly that’s because Rafael Cruz has become something of a star on the grass roots speaking circuit; the father is far less temperate than the son, but the audience may not have noticed that. Partly it’s because Cruz has embraced the “wacko bird” label. But it’s largely because the Republican base was so impressed by the fight against Obamacare that by the end of the year, supporting Cruz had become a litmus test in itself. 

By choosing Obamacare as his terrain, Cruz has earned a lot of breathing room for future battles. And given his libertarian bent and his occasionally ecumenical attitude, he may need it. At the end of his first year, though, Cruz had short-term concerns as well. Back in the Capitol in October, to break the silence as we waited for the elevator, I had asked him about the dynamics of the 2016 presidential election.  

“I think it will be about the proper direction for our country—which way to go,” he said, as the elevator arrived. “Do we continue down the path of more and more government spending, and debt, and taxation, and regulation, which has had the impact of producing historic economic stagnation, destroying jobs, and making opportunity illusory for so many Americans who are struggling to achieve the American dream?”

We left the elevator and headed for the Senate chamber. “Or do we instead,” Cruz continued, “get back to our free-market principles and constitutional liberties, which have served as the foundation for making this nation the freest and most prosperous in the history of the world—the nation that has enjoyed the greatest opportunity for millions to come with nothing and achieve anything? Okay, I gotta go.” And with that, he ducked into the Senate. 

He was, at that moment, the biggest irritation in Washington or the most popular politician in Texas. The senator who took a brave and lonely stand against the sprawling mess known as the Affordable Care Act or the demagogue whose grandstanding had cost the taxpayers billions of dollars. The return of Barry Goldwater or second coming of Ronald Reagan. The most consequential freshman in the history of his chamber or a spectacular burnout. That day, he was voting against Katherine Archuleta as the new director of the Office of Personnel Management. She was confirmed, on a 62–35 vote. 

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