‘Much of the Washington establishment wants to spend 2014 hiding in the caves,” Ted Cruz tells me. To say the least, the freshman senator won’t be spending the next year in the shadows. Though 2014 has been uncharacteristically quiet for him thus far, he is as provocative as ever chatting about the year ahead, vowing to escalate his battle against the Washington establishment and to tangle with members of both parties on issues from immigration reform to income inequality.
Cruz, who enraged his colleagues at the end of last year by spurring a government shutdown, continues to stick his thumb in the eye of the city’s elites. On Monday, he announced that he had hired, as his deputy chief of staff, Paul Teller, the longtime executive director of the Republican Study Committee, the group of lawmakers that has sought to drag the party to the right. Teller was fired last month after leaking private communications to outside conservative groups, allegedly in an attempt to scuttle Paul Ryan’s budget agreement with Democratic senator Patty Murray.
Cruz is a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer — with all the talent that implies — who uses his perch as a member of the country’s most powerful legislative body to argue that the elites and the institutions they populate are failing. He calls on K Street consultants to stop “carpet-bombing” conservatives and warns the GOP to resist the “siren call of Republican political consultants to silence what they view as the unwashed masses.” If they fail, he says, the consequences will be dire: Harry Reid will remain majority leader in 2015 and “send bouquets of roses to the Washington greybeards who appear on television saying all they care about is winning as they run losing campaign after losing campaign.”
The Washington elite, in Cruz’s telling, has lost touch with the grassroots, but he takes pains to demonstrate that he has not. #MakeDCListen is a favorite Twitter hashtag of his whose popularity exploded during Cruz’s 21-hour filibuster against Obamacare. He doesn’t claim credit for devising the strategy that led to the government shutdown. Instead, he gushes about it as a product of the effort of “millions of Americans” who managed to focus national attention on the president’s disastrous health-care bill. As for the midterm elections, victory is at hand for the GOP so long as Republicans don’t “demoralize and beat down grassroots conservatives.”
“I will note the almost daily reports one gets from the Washington establishment that their focus in 2014 is not on actually winning elections and defeating Democrats and retiring Harry Reid,” he says, “but rather on crushing into the ground conservatives so they will never be heard from again.”
As House Republicans prepare to issue guiding principles for a set of immigration reforms that closely mirror the Gang of Eight bill passed in the Senate, Cruz is ready to rally the opposition. “Anybody supporting immigration reform should put on the back of their car a bumper sticker that says ‘Harry Reid for majority leader,’” he says. Many have accused Cruz of training his fire unfairly on members of his own party. He thinks that too often the powers that be in the GOP train their fire at the party’s base, and he considers any immigration-related legislative efforts from the House GOP an attempt to silence conservatives.
The freshman firebrand proved to be the most disruptive force in Washington in 2013. As the prospect of a government shutdown loomed in Washington, Cruz appeared on Fox News Sunday. “This has been one of the strangest weeks I’ve ever had in Washington,” host Chris Wallace marveled. “As soon as we listed Ted Cruz as our featured guest this week, I got unsolicited research and questions, not from Democrats but from top Republicans, to hammer Cruz. Why are Republicans so angry at Ted Cruz?”
He may not have ended the year esteemed by his colleagues, but he is not cowed. Late Thursday afternoon he induced a bout of déjà vu when, in the midst of a vote on a 2014 spending bill, he introduced on the Senate floor amendment 2,686, to “prohibit funding for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” As an aide shuffled blue posters on and off an easel, he railed against the health-care law. “Reasonable minds can no longer differ on whether Obamacare is working,” he said. “Today, it is the essence of pragmatism to acknowledge the failure of Obamacare.” His props were as unsubtle as his rhetoric. One poster board read, “What have the Senate Majority Leader and Senate Democrats done to protect Americans from Obamacare? NOTHING.”
Though Cruz insists he didn’t want a government shutdown, he has no regrets. “The proof is in the pudding,” he says. He credits the defund effort with effecting the “dramatic political turnaround” that has public support for the law cratering and the political futures of Democrats across the country imperiled.
Democrats have declared 2014 the year in which they will tackle income inequality, and on that front too Cruz is ready to do battle. He opposes the president’s move to raise the minimum wage — the Washington Post reported on Thursday that the White House is weighing an executive action to boost it for employees of federal contractors — and he cheekily cheers their actions. The Democrats’ renewed focus on economic issues is fitting, he says, because “President Obama and his failed economic policies have dramatically increased income inequality.” His father, Rafael, a trusted adviser to whom he refers frequently in his speeches, will play a starring role in his case against the president on economic issues as well. “If my father were washing dishes today like he was in 1957, he very likely would’ve lost his job or been forced to work part-time because of Obamacare and crushing regulations on small businesses,” Cruz tells me.
The senator’s ideal presidential candidate, as he describes him, bears an uncanny likeness to Cruz himself. He says he’ll support somebody who is effectively fighting for “free-market principles, for the Constitution.” “It’s my hope that anybody who is thinking about running in 2016 will take it as their mandate to stand up and lead, to fight for economic growth, to fight for the Constitution,” he says.
He doesn’t think there are many of those leaders in Washington, and the anti-Washington message is working for him. According to a Rasmussen poll, he ended last year as one of the most influential men in America, coming in third in a survey behind only Pope Francis and President Obama. Coloring books featuring his countenance shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list during the Christmas season, and he’s slated to keynote the Gridiron dinner — alongside Florida Democrat Charlie Crist — in March.
“He’s relishing the Christie drama,” says a Republican strategist, though Cruz himself praises the New Jersey governor as a “brash, outspoken leader” and says it’s “unfortunate that he has found himself in this mess.” “I hope that he is able to extricate himself quickly,” Cruz says.
In Cruz’s view, “If you stand for principle, if you do your best to fight for the ideals in which you believe, the politics will take care of themselves.” Whether he admits it or not, it’s an exceedingly political statement — one, no doubt, he thinks can help propel a certain Texan to the White House in 2016.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.