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Sen. Ted Cruz announcing his candidacy for the presidency at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., in March. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
This story is being featured as part of our “Yahoo Best Stories of 2015” series. It was originally published in November 2015.
Over the course of his brief, polarizing career in electoral politics, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has been called many names, especially by liberals. “Dirty Syrup Guzzler” (Jon Stewart). “Creature from the Nether Regions” (Cher). “The Most Dangerous Canadian in America” (the Huffington Post).
Yet so far the most indelible description of Cruz has come from a fellow conservative. In 2013, when Cruz decided to protest U.S. drone policy by filibustering the nomination of incoming CIA chief John Brennan, John McCain told reporter Jon Ward — now a senior political correspondent for Yahoo News — that his junior colleague was a “wacko bird.”
The sobriquet stuck. It was emblazoned on T-shirts. It appeared in countless headlines. Cruz himself proudly displays a black WACKO BIRD baseball cap with a picture of Daffy Duck on it in his Senate office.
By using that particular moniker, McCain was, in effect, dismissing Cruz as both flighty and crazy. And for the most part that is exactly how the Texan has been characterized in both the press and the public imagination since he alighted on Washington, D.C., nearly three years ago and immediately set about trolling his fellow Republicans and hijacking the legislative process: as an irresponsible far-right demagogue prone to behave in irrational, counterproductive ways. Cruz’s showy obstructionism suffers from “basic logic problems” and “just doesn’t make sense,” wrote the Atlantic’s Molly Ball in 2013. “Zealot leaders” like Cruz “forget that the key to leadership is essentially getting results by moving agendas ahead,” added Inc. magazine.
Many pundits were skeptical when, in a speech at Virginia’s evangelical Liberty University on March 23 , Cruz became the first Republican to announce he was entering the 2016 presidential race. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn put it at the time, “The most interesting question about Mr. Cruz’s candidacy is whether he has a very small chance to win or no chance at all.”
But suddenly it seems that Cruz is running what even Dan Pfeiffer, a former top aide to President Obama, concedes is “the best campaign on the other side.” He has raised more money than any Republican other than Jeb Bush and more non-PAC money than any other Republican, period; he also has more cash on hand than any of his GOP rivals. He was the first candidate to recruit chairmen in all 171 counties in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. He is only candidate who for months has been consistently calling and sending surrogates to all five U.S. territories — Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands — in order to secure extra delegates who could prove decisive down the road. (More on that later.) He is doing more than any other Republican to prepare for the so-called “SEC primary,” a new Southern voting blitz set to take place on March 1; he has already enlisted more than 100 countywide campaign directors and 1,500 volunteers in Georgia alone. And from the start he has conspicuously refrained from criticizing frontrunner Donald Trump, choosing instead to position himself as Trump’s heir apparent, should the bombastic real estate mogul falter or fade, which Cruz has publicly predicted will happen.
Meanwhile, thanks to a few solid debate performances and a lot of good luck — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker dropping out, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul failing to catch fire with libertarians — Cruz is neck-and-neck with Marco Rubio for third place in the national polls and overtaking Ben Carson for second place in Iowa (where a new Quinnipiac survey shows that Cruz has doubled his support over the last four weeks). Observers now believe he has a clear shot at consolidating the conservative vote. As a result, the conventional wisdom has shifted. Perhaps when it comes to campaigning for president, Ted Cruz isn’t a wacko bird after all, the new thinking goes. In fact, it seems like he knows exactly what he’s doing.
But here’s the thing: Ted Cruz has always been more of a mastermind than a wacko bird.
Every politician plans, plots or schemes (depending on how pejorative you want to be about it); that’s part of the job. But not every politician is a prodigy at it.
Ted Cruz is. Since adolescence, Cruz has invested the vast majority of his time, energy and boundless ambition in endeavors that require and reward long-term strategic thinking — aka the fine art of making a plan and sticking to it. He honed his skills as a champion debater at Princeton University. He perfected them as one of the most effective appellate lawyers in the country. He relied on them during his first long-shot race in Texas. And now he is deploying them in the national arena as a senatorial troublemaker and presidential candidate. With the possible exception of Frank Underwood, the fictional star of Netflix’s House of Cards, there may be no shrewder, more calculating figure in American politics than Cruz — and so far, nearly all his calculations have paid off.
“Ted has a remarkable talent for strategic thinking,” says Charles Cooper, co-partner of the D.C. firm where Cruz first practiced law. “He understands that the things you say and do today can lay the groundwork for the things you want to accomplish in the next breath, a year from now or beyond. That’s crucial in both law and politics.”
A look back at Cruz’s life as a strategic phenom shows how he plotted his way to his current perch as a potential president — and hints at what his next move might be.
It also demonstrates how he can be defeated.
Ted Cruz as a baby with his father, from a campaign ad.
Rafael Edward Cruz was 17 years old when he arrived at Princeton University. He had already abandoned his family nickname “Felito” in favor of the more American-sounding “Ted.” He had already read Adam Smith, free-marketer Milton Friedman and libertarian hero Ludwig von Mises. He had already spent hundreds of hours studying the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and other founding documents at Houston’s Free Enterprise Institute, where his father had signed him up for classes four years earlier. And he was already a die-hard Republican.
“We all grow more conservative as we age,” a fellow student remembers Cruz saying at the time. “Why wait to grow old when you can be conservative now?”
In fact, Cruz — who was born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father — was so driven that by the time he started college he had already looked into whether he would be allowed to serve as president someday.
“He knew what he wanted,” Cruz’s Princeton friend Michael Lubetzky told the Washington Post. “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.”
Cruz tried to launch his political career at Princeton. Over the course of four years, he campaigned for student government, class president and debate-panel president, among other offices. He almost always lost. The problem, according to Cruz’s classmates, was simple, and not solved by strategic thinking: Many of his peers found him unlikable. Among the words they have used to describe the collegiate Ted Cruz in the decades since: “abrasive,” “intense,” “strident,” “crank,” “arrogant” — even “creepy.”
In the most basic sense, democracy is a popularity contest. But while most politicians learn to be likable in order to get elected, Cruz has shown from an early age that he’s unwilling — or perhaps just unable — to conceal the qualities that his colleagues tend to camouflage when seeking votes: the narcissism, the scheming, the blatant lust for power. Consider how Cruz is cozying up to Trump (and, to lesser degree, Carson) while at the same time all but admitting that the only reason he’s doing it is to siphon off supporters when the frontrunners inevitably go belly-up. It’s almost as if he has decided that he’s so skilled at outmaneuvering the competition that his maneuvering itself should be a selling point—a more important qualification than whether or not he’s likable.
Outside the classroom, Cruz achieved his greatest success at Princeton as a member of the Whig-Cliosophic Society, the school’s home for debate; he joined as a freshman, spent nearly every weekend on the road with the team and quickly became the number one collegiate debater in the nation.
While Cruz was legendary for his ability distill an argument to its simplest point, what he said was often secondary to how he said it. Often this meant bedeviling his opponents, and beguiling the student judges, with an array of tactical tricks developed during the late-night postgame recaps that Cruz forced his debating partner to participate in. “If we were fighting against us, what would we have done to win?” Cruz would ask. “What could we have done to get more points?”
What truly distinguished Cruz, though, was his knack for strategy.
“It’s chess to him,” says Sacha Zimmerman, a Columbia debater who knew Cruz from the circuit. “He’s a machine. He sees all these options — plan Bs and Cs. ‘If this move happens, then this move happens.’”
Instead of responding to his opponents’ arguments, Zimmerman explains, Cruz would simply “reframe the whole debate.”
“Cruz thought of angles ahead of time and found ways make them work for whatever the theme of the debate was,” she says. “Most of us did not do that. We’d show up and find out that we were supposed to be talking about ‘ideas of freedom’ or whatever, and in our 10 minutes of prep time we’d come up with what we wanted to say. But Cruz would already have his approach thoroughly mapped out, and he would have already thought through every alternate argument too. It was huge advantage.”
Cruz, flanked by Carly Fiorina and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, during last month’s presidential debate in Boulder, Colo. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
To see Cruz execute his signature maneuver, rewatch last month’s CNBC debate in Boulder, Colo. At one point, moderator Carl Quintanilla asks Cruz whether his opposition to the recent bipartisan budget deal shows that he is “not the kind of problem solver American voters want.” In response, Cruz doesn’t just decline to answer; instead he transforms Quintanilla’s rather docile question into damning proof of the mainstream media’s alleged bias against Republicans.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz thunders. “This is not a cage match. And you look at the questions: ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?”
The audience roars. According to Frank Luntz, who has been focus-grouping presidential debates for more than 15 years, Cruz’s response received a 98 out of 100, the most favorable rating ever recorded.
Yet on second viewing, what’s striking about Cruz’s pivot is how premeditated it sounds. Cruz’s tell is the way he was able to rattle off, with remarkable accuracy, the most unflattering questions his rivals had already been asked. It seems clear that Cruz arrived in Boulder planning to spend the first part of the debate making a mental list of every “biased” query for later use. By the time Quintanilla got around to him, he was ready to strike.
Cruz continued to strategize at Harvard Law. His byline — or, rather, bylines — were telling. When he wrote for the Harvard Latino Law Review, a journal that he co-founded, Cruz signed his articles “Rafael E. Cruz.” Elsewhere, such as in the conservative Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, “R. Ted Cruz” was his moniker of choice. Conversations with Cruz’s fellow law students, especially those who served with him on the prestigious Harvard Law Review, suggest that Cruz wasn’t always the most reliable contributor; he was widely seen as being too busy volunteering as a research assistant for various influential professors – the kind who could later write him recommendation letters – to bother with less urgent matters.
Cruz’s main objective in Cambridge was clear: He wanted to win a clerkship with Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. (“From day one,” his study partner has recalled, “that was his tangible, near-term goal.”) Everyone knew that Rehnquist, a devoted tennis player, preferred to hire clerks who knew their way around the court. But Cruz had barely ever picked up a racket.
“Would you be willing to play tennis with me and my other clerks?” Rehnquist asked Cruz when they met for a job interview.
“I should tell you I’m not very good,” Cruz claims to have replied.
What Cruz doesn’t mention — and what several classmates remember him being “very open” about at the time — is that he had already described himself as a tennis player on his application for the clerkship.
Either way, Cruz got the job. To prepare, he spent the next several months cramming with a tennis coach. But the lessons didn’t seem to help: Cruz still bombed in his first doubles match with Rehnquist, whose team won in straight sets — 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.
In 1998, Cruz moved on to a boutique Washington, D.C., firm then known as Cooper & Carvin; he was the first associate hired. “Ted had a golden résumé,” says Mike Carvin today. (Carvin, who has been called “the hard right’s best advocate,” is the lawyer who earlier this year argued against Obamacare before the Supreme Court in King v. Burwell.) “We figured he would be a very good candidate to succeed in private practice as well.” Cruz’s plotting had paid off yet again.
From the beginning, Cruz proved particularly adept at the kind of law that he would go on to practice for the next decade: appellate litigation. This is key to understanding Cruz. As legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin wrote last year in the New Yorker, “Trial lawyers, civil or criminal, are often brought into cases when there are compromises to be made; much of their work winds up involving settlements or plea bargains. But appellate litigators, like Cruz, generally appear after the time for truce has passed. Their job is to make their best case and let the chips fall where they may.”
For Toobin, Cruz’s specific brand of legal expertise explains “the kind of politician Cruz has become — one who came to Washington not to make a deal but to make a point.”
That’s undoubtedly true. But there’s another difference between trial lawyers and appellate litigators that’s just as important in explaining Cruz. Trial lawyers argue over facts: Was the traffic light green or red? Appellate litigators, meanwhile, argue over the law itself — what it says, what it means, how it applies to the case at hand. To be a good appellate lawyer — and Cruz, according to James Ho, his successor as Texas solicitor general, is “easily the best appellate lawyer in the state of Texas and truly one of the best appellate lawyers in the nation” — knowing the rules very, very well is essential. But you also have to know how to make them work in your favor.
At Cooper & Carvin, the biggest test of Cruz’s burgeoning talent for appellate law was a case involving two sitting U.S. congressmen: Boehner v. McDermott. A Florida couple had used a police scanner to eavesdrop on Rep. John Boehner of Ohio discussing House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ongoing ethics troubles during a conference call with Gingrich and other Republican leaders. The couple then gave an audiotape of the call to Democratic Rep. John McDermott, chair of the committee investigating Gingrich, and he, in turn, gave it to various newspapers. Boehner sued. Initially, a district court ruled that McDermott had not broken the law, arguing that even though someone else had recorded the call illegally, McDermott— the middleman — was protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment because the conversation on the tape was a matter of public concern.
Boehner appealed, and that’s where the 28-year-old Cruz came in. As “the key architect of our legal strategy,” according to Carvin, Cruz reframed the whole debate, urging his bosses to question whether leaking a tape to a newspaper even qualified as speech in the first place. This time, the court sided with Boehner. According to its ruling, McDermott had merely “caused a copy of the tape” to be given to the press — meaning that while his behavior may have conveyed a message, it was essentially conduct and therefore not protected by the First Amendment.
As effective as Cruz was at Cooper & Carvin, however, his superiors could already sense that he was mulling his next move. “It was clear,” Cooper says. “He was very animated about public policy. He was very interested in politics himself. But the thing that was unusual about Ted wasn’t his interest. It was his real potential talent as a politician.”
More than a decade before he would run for office himself, Cruz joined George W. Bush’s presidential campaign as a domestic policy adviser. When the election devolved into a chaotic clash over Florida’s hanging chads, Cruz, who has described himself as “the only practicing constitutional litigator” on staff, was tapped to facilitate communication and maintain consistency across all seven of Bush’s legal teams. Again Cruz was put in a key strategic position — and again he excelled. “It was incredibly fast-paced and very difficult,” says Carvin, who, recruited by his former employee, wound up representing Bush before the Florida Supreme Court. “And Ted was always analyzing the various challenges in a very sophisticated, savvy way.”
Yet Cruz’s savviness had its limits. His strategic thinking may have been helpful to Bush in court, but after hours, Cruz couldn’t seem to turn it off. According to a report in GQ, Cruz so frequently sent “mundane work emails in the middle of the night” that his colleagues began to suspect him of “writing them ahead of time and programming his computer to send while he was asleep” in order to look like he’d been working around the clock. He would also issue regular updates on his accomplishments that one recipient likened to “the cards people send about their families at Christmas, except Ted’s were only about him and were more frequent.” After the election, many of Cruz’s campaign colleagues were rewarded with plum White House jobs, and Cruz was expecting the same. But once again his machinations had rubbed too many people the wrong way. He was exiled to the Justice Department and later the Federal Trade Commission instead.
Then Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott arrive outside federal court in Austin, Texas, in 2006 to argue a case involving congressional redistricting. (Photo: Harry Cabluck/AP)
It wasn’t long, however, before Cruz would get another chance to put his strategic skills to use. Down in Texas, newly elected Attorney General Greg Abbott had resolved to build the most aggressive AG operation in the country — and in Cruz, whom he appointed solicitor general in 2002, Abbott found the perfect lieutenant. The pair scoured the country for fights brewing between the states and Washington, D.C., then inserted Texas into the proceedings whenever possible. In doing so, Cruz and Abbott were practicing a time-honored tradition; AGs have long targeted cases that can help them advance their own philosophical and electoral interests. Cruz and Abbott were just being particularly bold about it.
Cruz had found his calling. As solicitor general, he wound up arguing nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, more than any practicing lawyer in Texas and any current member of Congress. He won five and lost four. But while Cruz’s losses were relatively minor, his victories were momentous. Cruz’s successor, James Ho, who refers to the senator as his “mentor,” points to two in particular as examples of Cruz’s strategic genius.
The first is a case that Cruz has made a central part of his stump speech ever since he started running for the Senate in 2011: Medellín v. Texas. The facts were never in dispute. Jose Medellín, a Mexican citizen, was on death row for the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston; he had confessed to the crime immediately after his arrest. But because U.S. authorities had failed to inform Medellín and 50 other similarly situated Mexican nationals of their right to seek legal assistance from the Mexican government, the judicial arm of the United Nations was now calling for their cases to be reopened — and the Bush administration was agreeing.
Medellín looked unwinnable. “From a strategic standpoint, on the other side were literally the president of the United States, the International Court of Justice and numerous foreign countries,” says Ho. “That’s quite a formidable wall of opposition.”
But Cruz, as always, had a plan. He would, yet again, reframe the whole debate. “In both law and politics, I think the essential battle is the meta-battle of framing the narrative,” Cruz has explained. “The other side’s narrative in Medellín was very simple and easy to understand. ‘Can the state of Texas flout U.S. treaty obligations, international law, the president of the United States and the world? … When Justice Kennedy comes home and he tells his grandson, ‘This case is about whether a state can ignore U.S. treaty obligations,’ we lose. So I spent a lot of time thinking about, What’s a different narrative to explain this case?”
Eventually Cruz figured it out. Medellín v. Texas would no longer be a fight between Texas and the United States; instead it would be a fight between the White House and Congress. Before the court, Cruz argued that if President Bush wanted to order Texas to reopen the case, he would need the specific authorization of Congress; without it, the president was violating the separation of powers. Six justices concurred with Cruz — including one liberal, John Paul Stevens, to the surprise of many observers. Cruz won the case.
Cruz addresses the press outside the Supreme Court after defending the redistricting of Texas in 2006. (Photo: Kevin Clark/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Cruz’s other standout Supreme Court performance wasn’t as high-profile as Medellín. But according to Ho, Cruz still helped to shape the winning strategy from behind the scenes. When a homeless Texan sought to have a 10 Commandments monument removed from the grounds of the Texas State Capitol in Van Orden v. Perry, Cruz prepared a brief that made many of the usual conservative arguments about why the monument in question did not violate the separation of church and state. But at least one of Cruz’s arguments was novel: that monuments like Texas’ are innately pluralistic because they aren’t derecognizing one thing in order to recognize something else.
“This is simply not a context in which the State is reasonably understood to be taking sides,” Cruz wrote. “The many monuments commemorating veterans do not communicate disapproval of pacifists; the Tribute to Children does not reflect negatively on older Texans; the Hiker and horse-riding Cowboy monuments send no message concerning motorized transport; and the Volunteer Firemen monument reflects no official disapproval of those who pursue firefighting as a paid profession.”
The Court again sided with Cruz. In fact, the Texan’s argument, delivered before the court by Abbott, was so convincing that it swayed even Stephen Breyer, a liberal justice who simultaneously came to the opposite conclusion in another, nearly identical 10 Commandments case.
“Ted has this powerful combination,” Ho says. “He’s able to fight for his vision of the Constitution and to fight for his principles. But he’s able to do so with the kind of rhetoric and the style of argumentation that convinces people who would normally disagree with him.”
Maybe so. But while Cruz clearly holds strong, sincere views on the original intent of the Framers and the power of free-market economics, winning — the argument, the debate, the case, the election — seems to be at least as important to him.
After leaving the Texas attorney general’s office in 2008, for example, Cruz joined the Houston office of the international law firm Morgan Lewis, where as a partner he earned $1.2 million in 2009 and $1.7 million in 2010. Few of Cruz’s cases at Morgan Lewis had anything to do with principle; some even appeared to contradict his oft-stated concern for everyday Americans struggling to get ahead in a globalized, too-big-to-fail economy. He served as counsel for drug manufacturer Pfizer in a lawsuit brought by a group of public hospitals and community health centers. He represented a student-loan company challenging the dismissal of a bankrupt student’s debt. He did the same for an insurance company attempting to avoid paying a plaintiff’s legal bills. And in November 2010, when Chinese tire manufacturer Shandong Linglong appealed a $26 million jury verdict awarded to a Florida businessman who alleged that the company had been using stolen blueprints to duplicate his designs, Cruz sided with the Chinese company over the American entrepreneur.
“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,” Cruz would later explain. “And I think the way to do so is to focus very pragmatically on how to win the case.”
That is Cruz in a nutshell: principled about where he ultimately wants to go, but pragmatic about how he gets there. How is he reframing the debate? How is he using the rules to his advantage? At the end of the day, Cruz has always been that restless 19-year-old up late in his dorm room trying to calculate what he could “have done to get more points.” And he probably always will be.
As a U.S. Senate candidate, Cruz debates Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in 2012. (Photo: LM Otero/AP)
The most telling moment of Cruz’s U.S. Senate campaign may have been a text message.
In April 2012, two days before Cruz and the rest of the Republican primary field were set to debate in Dallas, Cruz sent an SMS to one of his rivals, former ESPN analyst Craig James. At that point, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the establishment favorite, was still leading in the polls, but Cruz, the tea party challenger, was gaining fast. Aware that each candidate would be given a chance to ask one of their opponents a question during the debate, Cruz started to scheme.
“Craig — hope you’re well,” he typed into his phone. “See you Friday. For what it’s worth, since you’re asking me a Q, it might be worth asking me something about Dew skipping 31 debates (or something else related to his record). Just an idea… Ted.”
Unfortunately, Cruz’s plan to gang up on the frontrunner backfired. Accusing Cruz of attempting to “rig the system,” James leaked his “set-up question” to the press. “I’ve campaigned that I’m going to stand for [what’s] right, and this is simply not right,” James said in a statement. “I leave it now to the press and the public to decide whether this kind of politics is acceptable in 2012 Texas. I hope not.”
The text message was a little thing. It didn’t affect the race, and nobody outside of Texas really noticed. But it shows that no strategic detail is too small for Cruz to obsess over — even when the risks outweigh the potential rewards. He is always on the verge of going too far.
To get a sense of how Cruz plans to win the 2016 GOP primary, it helps to revisit his only other run for office. When Cruz entered the 2012 Senate race in Texas, he was virtually unknown. “I was at 2 percent in the polls,” Cruz is fond of reminding audiences today, “and the margin of error was three percent.“
Republican primaries are usually battles over which candidate is the most conservative — especially in Texas. But Dewhurst and Cruz were both hardcore right-wingers; they agreed on the issues. So again Cruz reframed the whole debate, as Texas Monthly’s Erica Grieder has explained. The problem with Dewhurst, Cruz told audiences over and over, isn’t that he’s insufficiently pure; it’s that he’s too “timid,” too cozy with the establishment, to act on his convictions and challenge what Cruz likes to call the “Washington cartel.” Senator Cruz, on the other hand, would be a “fighter.”
For months, Cruz kept hammering away at this argument, and when the Supreme Court upheld key aspects of the Affordable Care Act on June 28, 2012, he finally got the opening he needed. Both candidates had opposed Obamacare and pledged to fight for its repeal if elected. But only Cruz (said Cruz) was truly willing to bloody himself in battle. “Obamacare underscores the fundamental difference between me and David Dewhurst,” Cruz declared. “Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst is a deal-maker. He is a conciliator.” When the runoff ballots were counted a few weeks later, Cruz had defeated Dewhurst by more than 150,000 votes.
Now Cruz is attempting to pull off the same trick on the national stage.
Most senators tend to think of the Senate as a collegial, even genteel place. But from day one Cruz refused to play by the rules — perhaps because he realized that at a time of growing disgust toward Washington, D.C., he could do more to advance his own career by breaking them.
Cruz exits the Senate floor after speaking for more than 21 hours in opposition to the Affordable Care Act on Sept. 25, 2013. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
Predictably, GOP leaders have bristled at Cruz’s behavior, from his 21-hour pseudo-filibuster over Obamacare to his insistence that his fellow Republicans are “squishes” who belong to some sort of “surrender caucus.” They were particularly infuriated, and baffled, when Cruz almost single-handedly forced the government to shut down in 2013. “It was very evident to everyone in the room that Cruz doesn’t have a strategy,” one of Cruz’s fellow GOP senators said at the time. “He never had a strategy and could never answer a question about what the endgame was.”
But of course Cruz had a strategy, just like he did in Texas. (And at law school. And on the debate circuit.) In fact, it had four parts. Here’s how he described them in late 2013:
First, Republicans would rally grassroots support for the cause. Second, the Republican-controlled House would pass a bill funding all the federal government’s activities except Obamacare. Third, Republicans in the Senate, which was 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.”
“Where the plan went awry was in step three,” Cruz added. “Unfortunately, we failed to unify Senate Republicans.” (Not coincidentally, the task of unifying a party caucus often requires legislators to cultivate personal relationships with their colleagues — a skill that Cruz seems to lack.)
Cruz also had an endgame, which seems blindingly obvious in retrospect: to run for president. Cruz is smart enough to know that President Obama was never going to agree to sabotage his own signature domestic policy achievement. Cruz is also smart enough to know that however polarizing and self-destructive it may have seemed at the time, positioning himself as Obamacare’s most inflexible foe — and proving in the process that he was precisely the sort of stubborn combatant he’d promised Texas he would be — would pay off on the 2016 campaign trail.
It finally is. Carson is wobbling. Paul is polling at 2.5 percent. And Walker is back in Wisconsin. From the start, Team Cruz has divided the 2016 primary into four lanes—an establishment lane, a tea party lane, an evangelical lane and a libertarian lane—and, as the senator told Politico in a recent interview, “the players that were expected to be formidable in those lanes have not got the traction they had hoped.”
Most presidential candidates refuse to allow their staffers to discuss strategy on the record; Cruz loves to talk about it himself.
“The most encouraging thing I would say,” the senator continued, “is that I think three of the lanes are collapsing into one. … The evangelical lane, the conservative tea party lane and the libertarian lane are all collapsing into the conservative lane, and we’re seeing those lanes unify behind our campaign.”
By the spring, Cruz expects a two-man contest: a conservative candidate versus an establishment candidate. With establishment Republicans beginning to coalesce around Rubio, Cruz, true to form, has already begun to reframe the race — to “choose the terrain,” as ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once said, and as Cruz is fond of repeating, “on which the battle will be fought.”
This is why Cruz keeps casting himself as the only “consistent conservative” in a field of “campaign conservatives” — “people who talk a good game,” as he puts it, but who “haven’t walked the walk.” (As evidence, he frequently boasts about how much the rest of the GOP hates him.) It’s also why, one day after the last GOP debate in Milwaukee, Cruz attacked Rubio for previously supporting comprehensive immigration reform. “Talk is cheap,” the Texan snapped. “You know where someone is based on their actions. As the Scripture says, you shall know them based on their fruits.”
If Cruz can transform the 2016 Republican primary into a war over who has been more willing to blow up Washington, D.C., in the name of hard-line conservatism, he will win every time.
Cruz is also making sure that he understands the rules of this year’s nominating process better than his opponents — just like a good appellate litigator. Noting that the RNC has sped up the 2016 primary schedule — almost two-thirds of Republican delegates will be allocated by March 22 — Cruz spent August traveling across the South and strengthening his a regional turnout operation rather than camping out in Iowa or New Hampshire like everyone else. Having since secured key endorsements in the Hawkeye State, where he is rising in the polls, Cruz is now poised to head into the March 1 “SEC primary,” and the rest of the race, with stronger support among conservatives than most pundits predicted.
“In past election years, a candidate could essentially move to Iowa or move to New Hampshire, live there for a year, and hope to catch lightning in a bottle and surprise everyone,” Cruz recently explained. “I don’t think that’s possible this cycle.”
Likewise, Team Cruz noticed early on that the RNC’s obscure rule No. 40 (b), which was rewritten in 2012, currently stipulates that a candidate cannot receive the nomination without first winning a majority of the delegates in eight separate states or territories. The territory part is crucial. It’s conceivable, even likely, that none of the Republican candidates will get more than 50 percent of the vote in the crowded Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada contests, which means that none of those states will count toward fulfilling the requirements of rule No. 40 (b). But competition for delegates is much less heated in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands than it is on the mainland — even though, for the purposes of winning the nomination, each territory still counts just as much as a state. And so Cruz has been calling the governor of Guam, dispatching an emissary to American Samoa, sending his father, Rafael, to the Virgin Islands and so on. The more delegates he can pick up overseas, the thinking goes, the better his chances of reaching the RNC’s magic number of majorities — regardless of what happens in the early states.
Cruz confers with his father, Rafael, earlier this month in Iowa. (Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)
It remains to be seen, of course, whether the divisive Cruz, who has never even attempted to appeal to moderate voters, has the agility to pivot from a narrowly focused primary contest to a nationwide general election. Many observers doubt it. But they shouldn’t doubt that Cruz has a plan.
As usual, Cruz himself has already spelled it out. He calls his strategy “opportunity conservatism”: a carefully calibrated message designed to counter the impression that “the GOP is the party of ‘the rich’ and that Democrats are the party of everybody else” by “conceptualiz[ing] and articulat[ing] every domestic policy with a single-minded focus on easing the ascent up the economic ladder.”
“Don’t just say no to new taxes,” Cruz advised his fellow Republicans in 2013. “Fundamentally reform the tax code so that every American can file his taxes on a postcard. Eliminate the corporate welfare and complexity that enrich only accountants and lawyers.”
“Don’t just criticize union bosses,” he continued. “Explain how closed shops confiscate wages and make it harder for low-skilled workers to get jobs. Don’t talk generically about education; advocate school choice to empower parents and expand opportunity for children struggling to get ahead. Don’t just dwell on the long-term solvency of Social Security; promote personal accounts to allow low-income Americans to accumulate wealth and pass it on to future generations.”
Yet as clever as Cruz’s premeditated general-election message may be — and as crucial as strategic thinking is to a successful presidency — the problem remains: people won’t vote for someone they dislike, and a lot of people dislike Ted Cruz.
Asked during the GOP debate in Boulder to name his greatest weakness, the senator acknowledged as much. “If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy,” he said. “But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home.”
This was supposed to be a moment of sincerity. Still, Cruz couldn’t stop scheming. The only reason I’m not likable is that I’m so responsible, he was telling viewers. My greatest weakness is actually my greatest strength.
In the end, it is this flagrance — this lifelong inability to disguise his opportunism — that may prove to be Cruz’s undoing. Throughout his career, Cruz has rarely, if ever, been outstrategized. But even he may not be smart enough to strategize his way out of being disliked, because openly plotting about how to make people like you more, à la Ted Cruz, only makes them like you less.
The National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke, a conservative himself, put it best earlier this year. “For all his obvious talent, Cruz’s rhetorical style frankly makes my hair curl a little,” Cooke wrote. “There is always a touch of condescension in the pitch — a small whiff of superciliousness that gives one the unlovely impression that Ted Cruz believes his listeners to be a little bit dim. [He] remind[s] me of the age-old observation that it is one thing to be the smartest man in the room, but that it is quite another to behave as if you know it.”
The last time Cruz lost an election, this was the reason why. The year was 1991. The place was Yale University. The day had come to vote for a new president of the American Parliamentary Debate Association.
Everyone had long known that Cruz would run. And everyone assumed he would win. But a few months earlier, during the World Universities Debating Championship in Toronto, a group of students who couldn’t bear the thought of “President Cruz” met in a cramped hotel room to plot their insurgency. The plan was to field a protest candidate. Eventually, after some beverages had been consumed, Ted Niblock of Johns Hopkins was selected as the nominee. Word quickly spread throughout the circuit: If you don’t want Cruz to win, vote for Niblock. He promises that, as president, he will attempt to do nothing whatsoever, and accomplish even less.
At Yale, Cruz delivered yet another slick speech. Then Niblock mounted the stage. “The world doesn’t care who the president of the American Parliamentary Debating Association is,” he said. And that was it: His entire nihilist platform — the antidote to all of Cruz’s scheming and ambition — in a single sentence.
It didn’t take long to tally the ballots. Niblock had won the presidency. Cruz had lost.
“My sole qualification,” Niblock says today, “is that I was not Ted Cruz.”
Cruz at the Sunshine Summit in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)