Ted Cruz is rising. Going into the last Republican debate, in which he was undoubtedly a star, he garnered solid numbers. He’s now beating Trump in Iowa while moving up nationally. Ever since his race for Senate, of which I was an early backer, Cruz has skillfully walked the thin line between being the ultimate political insider – Ivy league alum, Supreme Court Clerk, White House staffer, Solicitor General – and a tea party rebel bent on harnessing the anger of conservatives to – once and for all! – “Make DC Listen.”
When I first met Cruz at a tea party event in central Texas nearly five years ago, he was polling at two percent – a talking point that would become a staple in his future Senate stump speeches. He struck me as the kind of person for whom ambition had no limits, and I was impressed with his willingness to put in the legwork. Cruz is adept at sensing the direction of political winds and seizing dramatic moments that place him at the center of the intrigue.
Anyone who got to know Cruz during his Senate primary can tell you that he was dedicated, one hundred and ten percent, to winning. He criss-crossed the behemoth that is Texas at a seemingly impossible clip, spending quality time with activists heartened by the prior cycle’s tea party victories but frustrated with an establishment still ignoring their concerns. Cruz, skillfully reading the political tea leaves, quickly stood out as the antidote to David Dewhurst – the Lieutenant Governor whose team employed the Hillary Clinton strategy: Keep the front-runner out of sight, make some big ad buys, and let name-ID finish the job.
The Cruz Crew wasn’t having it. Riding the tea party wave with the seemingly elitist and often absent Dewhurst as an easy target, we declared victory during a low-turnout midsummer runoff, joking at the party in scorching hot Houston that all of Dew’s supporters must’ve been in Martha’s Vineyard. Thus began, in earnest, Cruz’s rise to national prominence. He was no longer an impressive secret hoarded by tea party activists. And we were waiting for him to, as he said he did in the latest debate, keep his campaign promises.
Of course, no politician will ever be the same as he was once elected. Governing and marketing are, by definition, distinctly different activities. Plus, the priorities of voters change. As I’ve previously lamented, it seems that the “libertarian moment,” to which Cruz pandered strongly in 2012, was more blindly “anti-establishment” than philosophically grounded. Frankly, this goes a long way toward explaining Cruz’s present behavior, some of which I see as favorable, and other aspects that to me, demonstrate the vapid nature of his “courageous conservative” branding.
Take this past week’s debate. Cruz’s bizarre “carpet bombing” commentary aside, he was excellent on the matter of regime change. “If we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests,” said Cruz, sounding like the only rational voice besides Rand Paul. “And the approach, instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter, we ought to hunt down our enemies and kill ISIS rather than creating opportunities for ISIS to take control of new countries,” he added.
In that moment, he sounded like throwback campaign trail Ted, telling my husband at a Republican Liberty Caucus event at Texas A&M that he believes war is only necessary to protect American interests and nation building is a negative. Where Cruz has strongly adjusted his rhetoric, however, is on immigration – a development I’ve long followed as he’s morphed from introducing a bill to expand work visas and an amendment to allow legal status, to saying he “stands with Jeff Sessions and Steve King,” representatives of the hardline anti-immigrant wing within the GOP.
When Cruz was on the stump in Texas, he made the virtues of legal immigration, through the story of his father, a campaign mainstay. He still speaks well of his Cuban-exile father’s impressive background, but he’s been careful to adjust both his rhetoric – and policy – to appeal to those seduced by Trump’s desire to wall-off Mexico. Cruz went from proposing a 500% increase in H-1B visas while extolling the free market virtues of immigration, to seeking protectionist restrictions on allowing people to enter the U.S. and work legally; all in a span of two years.
Buried underneath these significant policy and poise changes is, naturally, a strategy. Cruz isn’t wrong in his desire to tap into the type of populist energy that led him to an underdog victory in Texas, hence his refusal to take the gloves off when it comes to Trump. The problem for Cruz, however, is that he’s now engaged in a very delicate and, frankly, transparent balancing act.
On the one hand, we’re told that he’s a rock-ribbed conservative, unafraid to – rightfully, by the way – call Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor. On the other hand, when Cruz sends out a tweet deeming Hillary donor Trump “terrific,” his supporters expect us to believe it’s simply because he won’t attack his fellow Republicans. It doesn’t work both ways.
During the debate, Cruz made the aforementioned hypocrisy even more obvious when he went after Rubio on immigration. But when asked about how he differed from Trump, our “courageous conservative” demurred. For someone allegedly unafraid to take the fight to Republicans who are part of the problem, Cruz is tellingly unwilling to, not just attack Trump, but even explain how they’re different. Perhaps “courageous conservatism” isn’t a guiding principle but a politically convenient pandering tool.
I find myself agreeing with Red State’s Leon Wolf, also an early Cruz supporter, who wrote:
“Having called Marco Rubio a liar, unprincipled, and someone who doesn’t understand the issues, he better discover soon that Donald Trump is without question a much bigger unprincipled liar who has no understanding of the issues, and muster the testicular fortitude to say so in public. If you’re going to be a happy warrior who doesn’t attack other Republicans no matter what they say about you, then be that happy warrior. If you’re going to be an attack dog when attacked, then turn the same vitriol on Trump that you turned on Rubio.”
All of this said, it’s possible that Cruz’s strategy, hypocritical as it may be presently, will work. It’s just unfortunate that we apparently occupy a world where “courageous conservatism” entails licking the boots of a lifelong Democrat with authoritarian tendencies, all because polls show his numbers rise when he attacks foreigners. Cruz may well gain a portion of Trump’s supporters with his new-found anti-market views. If he does, fine, I’d prefer they go to him than Trump, or even most of the Republicans on that stage. But he needs to make sure his tightrope walking doesn’t cause him to look like the kind of politician engaged in doublespeak that he claims not to be.
Cruz hasn’t convincingly explained the discrepancies between his 2013 immigration amendment and his current rhetoric, coming across defensive in a recent interview with Bret Baier. As Baier pointed out, Cruz either lied to bolster his amendment to the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, that would have, as he said, “allowed those here illegally to come out of the shadows.” Or Cruz is lying now with his hardline talk and new-found admiration for Pete Sessions. Frankly, I hope it’s the latter. Realistically though, I think his ambition trumps all, and his willingness to change with the populist winds guides him more than principle.
Ultimately, it’s clear through all of this that Cruz is incredibly intelligent. He’s undoubtedly one of the smartest people I’ve had the privilege of interacting with. But as he rises in the polls, he’s walking on thin ice. He and his team need to do a better job of answering the charges currently before them rather than simply pretending the obvious discrepancies between his past record and current rhetoric don’t exist.
And while Cruz’s apparent gentlemen’s agreement with Trump might ultimately be the right gamble for him, his team also cannot pretend that his earliest supporters aren’t taking notice of the blatant hypocrisy. Cruz is a talented politician but the balancing act he’s currently engaged in would be almost impossible for anyone to undertake flawlessly. Where he goes from here will no doubt be watched with great interest, especially as the Iowa caucuses draw ever closer.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.
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