Magazine | August 24, 2015, Issue

Calculating Cruz

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
The Texas senator is both ideological purist and shrewd tactician

When Donald Trump’s presidential bid started attracting serious attention, it was perhaps unsurprising that Ted Cruz was the only other Republican candidate to offer kind words about his new rival. After all, the two tend to draw support from the same kind of primary voter. Odder, though, was Cruz’s explanation for his praise of Trump. “I get that it seems the favorite sport of the Washington media is to encourage some Republicans to attack other Republicans,” the Texas Republican told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “I ain’t gonna do it. I’m not interested in Republican-on-Republican violence.”

This from a man who has garnered national attention mostly for attacking members of his own party’s leadership. Indeed, just days after he evoked the sentiment of Reagan’s “Eleventh Commandment” — “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” — Cruz took to the Senate floor to accuse Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell of telling a “flat-out lie.” According to Cruz, McConnell had assured him that a vote on the controversial Export-Import Bank would not be attached to a must-pass highway bill, when in fact it was. What had become of Cruz’s opposition to Republican-on-Republican violence?

Such is the paradox of the Cruz campaign: The man who boasts of his ideological purity is perhaps the most obviously tactical candidate. Whether praising Trump, changing his position on trade-promotion authority at the last moment, or getting as close as possible to Rand Paul on national security when the Paulite tendency was at its strongest, Cruz is always maneuvering to stay at the front of the parade.

His sympathizers see nothing more than the inevitable fancy footwork of any politician operating in the real world. “Tactics and goals necessarily go hand in hand,” says Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, the advocacy wing of the Heritage Foundation. Cruz’s critics, on the other hand, see naked self-interest. These conflicting interpretations are part of why Cruz generates such passion, pro and con.

At times, he shows he’s unafraid to take unwaveringly principled stances regardless of whether they’re well received. At an agriculture summit in March, for example, he was the lone candidate in the Republican field to tell Iowa voters that he opposes the Renewable Fuel Standard. The RFS has enriched Iowa’s corn farmers, and the ethanol industry, by essentially mandating that gasoline contain a minimum percentage of renewable fuels. Iowa governor Terry Branstad opened the event by telling the assembled presidential candidates not to “mess with” the mandate; Cruz dismissed it as corporate welfare, said that Washington shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, and painted his fellow candidates as a bunch of panderers.

But at other times, it’s Cruz who seems to be pandering. In April, he co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed with House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan in which the two announced their support for legislation giving the administration trade-promotion authority (TPA), which would empower the executive branch, for the next five years, to negotiate trade agreements that Congress cannot amend or filibuster. All trade agreements since 1974 have been passed under such authority, and Cruz said in his op-ed that enacting TPA was crucial to making headway in current deals being negotiated, deals that “would mean greater access to a billion customers for American manufacturers, farmers, and ranchers.”

But between April and June, when the issue began to attract more attention, the conspiracy-minded elements of the Right turned against TPA, branding it “Obamatrade” and claiming that it granted the president too much power by allowing the administration to negotiate trade deals behind closed doors. The website Breitbart led an all-out offensive against it, and Trump, who has often been skeptical of free trade, announced on Twitter, “The Senate must NOT pass TPA! Any Senator who votes for it is disqualified for being POTUS. Protect the American worker and manufacturer!”

By the time the bill hit the Senate floor, Cruz was arguing that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House speaker John Boehner, and Senate Democrats had conspired to allow a vote to keep the Export-Import Bank alive in exchange for a vote on TPA. This claim became the basis of Cruz’s later contention that McConnell had lied to him.

Cruz supporters say that after all the deals had been cut, TPA was simply a different bill. “One plus two plus three plus four means I’m going to vote differently this time than the next,” Needham says. “That’s not flip-flopping, that’s just taking new information into account.” They also argue that on matters such as this one, Cruz has exposed Congress’s dark underbelly. If it angers insiders, so much the worse for them.

The premier political outsider at the moment is of course Donald Trump. Trump’s precipitate rise may hurt Cruz more directly than it hurts any other contender, since Trump is co-opting, for now, the kind of anti-establishment, populist voters who are contemptuous of the GOP’s leadership and sick of government as usual. Though the Donald is an unapologetic crony capitalist to the manor born, his supporters are natural Cruzites, and the senator can’t afford to alienate them.

“Cruz knows full well that Trump is a buffoon and is bad for conservatism,” says a top Republican strategist familiar with the senator’s thinking. “But he applauds him because it theoretically is good for Ted.”

Before Trump became the flavor of the week, the libertarian Kentucky senator Rand Paul was the media darling who threatened to poach potential Cruz voters. Time magazine dubbed him “the most interesting man in politics” in October 2014, and beginning with his filibuster over the administration’s drone policy, Paul grabbed the attention of Republicans looking to buck the establishment.

When Paul was at his zenith, Cruz proved himself to be a deliberately slippery ally, making Paulite sounds but never fully embracing Paul’s libertarianism on national security. Cruz stood by Paul’s side during that 13-hour filibuster. But when Paul filed a class-action lawsuit against the National Security Agency, Cruz was more circumspect: He told the Washington Examiner that the administration’s argument for the lawsuit’s dismissal was “highly dubious” but did not endorse the lawsuit itself.

What of Cruz’s own foreign-policy views? In public statements, he has kept them conveniently ill defined. Cruz has placed himself “somewhere in the middle” between Rand Paul and John McCain — in other words, somewhere between the two poles of Republican foreign-policy thinking. This has allowed ample room for maneuver. When the mood of the party was still dovish, Cruz railed against President Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria in response to Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons; when it grew more hawkish, Cruz began to speak of destroying ISIS at all costs. These positions are not necessarily contradictory, but they did keep Cruz in line with grassroots sentiment.

Cruz’s path to the nomination clearly depends on uniting the right of the party, a rather Herculean task in such a crowded field. This is why, for all his stalwart rhetoric and talk of principle, Cruz sometimes seems unwilling to make a move that would alienate the populist Right. He has mostly been successful on his own terms. Although his share of support in national polls remains slim, he has raised more hard dollars than any other candidate, and his fervent supporters, financial and otherwise, could easily help him break out in the right circumstances.

Still, shrewdness has its limits. Past standard-bearers of the conservative movement not only made enemies on the left but were also willing to tamp down right-wing populist enthusiasms when necessary. Barry Goldwater may have thought extremism in defense of liberty was no vice, but he joined the anti-Bircher campaign and moved against Richard Nixon during Watergate, neither of which was politically painless for him. Earlier this year, Cruz was unwilling to say a discouraging word about the conspiratorial frenzy over Operation Jade Helm 15 in Texas, a regular training exercise involving Special Operations forces. Instead, he said he understood the concern that, among other things, U.S. troops might be training to impose martial law on red states.

On the campaign trail, Cruz casts himself as the only pure man seeking the Republican nomination. “In a Republican primary, every candidate’s going to come in front of you and say, ‘I’m the most conservative guy that ever lived,’” Cruz told a crowd in Des Moines in January. But, he said, crisscrossing the stage, “talk is cheap. The Word tells us you will know them by their fruit.”

It seems fair to say that Cruz’s fruits so far have been mixed.

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