Cruz stands apart in Senate, earning cold shoulders

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This article is part of a series of profiles of the 2016 presidential candidates that will appear on the NewBostonPost in the months leading up to the nominating conventions. 

Texan Ted Cruz is usually the smartest guy in the room.

“Just ask him,” joked an acquaintance from the Republican senator’s days as a student at Harvard Law School.

Graphic made by the NewBostonPost

Graphic made by the NewBostonPost

The acquaintance, who agreed to be interviewed but asked not to be named, recalled feeling unmoved when discovering one evening in September 2013 that Cruz spoke on the Senate floor for more than 21 hours without stopping.

“I don’t remember him ever reading to us ‘Green Eggs & Ham,’” the acquaintance added, referring to the Dr. Seuss tale Cruz read aloud during his marathon filibuster of President Barack Obama’s signature health care measure, the Affordable Care Act.

Cruz, who is arguably the most conservative of the GOP candidates, was also the first Republican to formally announce a 2016 bid for the White House.

Cuba and Castro

An Ivy League-educated lawyer, Cruz was born in 1970, when his parents lived in Canada. His father, Rafael E. Cruz Sr., had fled his native Cuba, entering the U.S. on a student visa. After studying at the University of Texas, the elder Cruz went to work in the oil-drilling industry, where he met the candidate’s Delaware-born mother.

As a teenager in Cuba, Rafael Cruz vigilantly supported Fidel Castro. In a 2012 New Yorker interview, Cruz recalled how his father fought alongside other Cuban revolutionaries to overthrow the island nation’s U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Cruz talked about the beatings his father endured, “his teeth dangling from his mouth,” at the hands of the Batista government, and how in 1957 his father was able to leave Cuba to study in the U.S., before Castro took power in 1959.

Although he arrived in the U.S. a Castro supporter, the elder Cruz’s enthusiasm for the communist leader soon dissipated as Castro became a dictator even more ruthless than Batista.

The younger Cruz recalled in the New Yorker how his father had gone door-to-door in Austin, the Texas capital, to apologize to those he had asked for money on behalf of Castro. The senator said his dad was embarrassed that he had trusted the intentions of a revolutionary with leftist leanings. And he made sure his son would never make the same mistake.

When the family left Canada and moved back to Texas, the elder Cruz encouraged his son, then in high school, to get involved with a group known as the Free Market Education Foundation, an organization that introduced him to the writings of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and other conservative luminaries.

There, under the tutelage of Rolland Storey, Cruz and other politically engaged high school students committed portions of the U.S. Constitution to memory and prepared public talks in which they explained, in laymen’s terms, its often abstruse language. According to a profile of Cruz aired by National Public Radio, Cruz and his cohorts, who called themselves the Constitutional Collaborators, spent Friday nights not at football games like other Texas students, but at Houston civic clubs, where they would demonstrate their constitutional knowledge to community leaders.

The young Cruz would go on to graduate from the city’s Second Baptist High School in 1988 as class valedictorian. He was the first student in the school’s history to be admitted to Princeton University in New Jersey.

It was there that he found his public voice.

Princeton debates

At the Ivy League school, Cruz excelled academically and as a top debater.

In 1992, in his senior year, the Princeton Debate Panel named him speaker of the year, its highest honor.

But, as good as he was at forensics, Cruz missed out on becoming a national champion. An April 2015 New York Times account describes how Cruz came oh-so-close to knocking off his Harvard University opponents in a national tournament, only to see his strategy come back to bite him.

He had allowed his opponents to choose which side of Cruz’s proposed topic, the merits of mind-reading, to take. According to the Times, Cruz thought this would convey confidence in his ability to debate either side of the issue. But the Harvard team saw an opening and deliberately took their time deciding, thereby eating into Cruz’s allotted speaking time.

“I don’t think anything like that ever happened again,” said the acquaintance, who hadn’t heard how Cruz had been outfoxed.

Harvard Law

Cruz arrived in Cambridge to attend Harvard Law School in 1992, a year after Barack Obama graduated from the storied school. As a student, Cruz became an editor of the Harvard Law Review, the prestigious academic journal where Obama had been president. (Years later, the Harvard Law Review would publish a piece explaining the legal reason that Cruz, who was born in Canada, is nevertheless eligible to serve as a U.S. president because he qualifies as a “natural-born citizen,” since his mother was American.)

At the Review, Cruz built a reputation as a hard worker.

He was “clearly” driven, recalled Gail Brashers-Krug, who served as one of the Review’s executive editors at the time.

“There are always some people who foist work onto others or make excuses rather than trying to fix things. But Ted was not one of those people,” she said in an interview.

Brashers-Krug, who graduated a year ahead of Cruz, said the Review printed his original work, a high honor for a student, even though all such work was published unsigned.

“Everything that was published had to go through our office first,” she noted. And Cruz, she recalled, was a “great writer.”

Brashers-Krug acknowledged that she and Cruz “could not be further apart” along the political spectrum.

“I’m a Bernie Sanders person,” she said, referring to the Vermont senator and self-proclaimed socialist seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. “But that never came into play at the Law Review.”

Professor Alan Dershowitz, one of Cruz’s law professors, has said that Cruz was “off-the charts brilliant.”

But in an interview with the NewBostonPost, Dershowitz also said Cruz “was not the most-liked” student. He said Cruz was an unabashed know-it-all, and that this bothered his classmates.

“But the thing is, he truly did know it all,” Dershowitz said. “He never came to class unprepared. He completed every assignment.” The professor said Cruz expressed his views eloquently, and it was never just about ideology. “He knew all the cases cold.”

Dershowitz noted that his own liberalism often clashed with Cruz’s conservatism.

“He was so good at arguing his point of view, we’d argue for 15 minutes or more at a time, just the two of us in front of the entire class,” Dershowitz recalled. “Other students were jealous of him.”

Dershowitz said he never heard Cruz talk about social issues like abortion or gay marriage.

“He stuck to topics that were more conservatively judicial in nature, like the death penalty,” Dershowitz said.

Despite their political disagreements, Dershowitz said that when he heard Cruz was running for a Texas senate seat, he mailed him a $100 campaign donation.

“[Ted] jokingly sent it back to me with a note,” Dershowitz said. “He wrote that it would do me more damage if it came out that I donated to his campaign than it would do him.”

Even in the midst of his Cambridge surroundings, Cruz was 100 percent Texan, 100 percent of the time.

“He had the cowboy boots, I hear he flew the Texas flag proudly at his dorm,” the acquaintance recalled. “He spoke with that twang, too.”

Cruz lived in Hastings Hall but according to the acquaintance, he did not spend a lot of time there. That’s because he spent most of his time at the apartment the acquaintance shared with roommates, including one who Cruz was dating.

“He was over here so much and would want to talk with us even when (his girlfriend) wasn’t around,” the acquaintance said. “During the time I knew Ted, his (conservative) philosophy was very consistent. But I never thought of him as a social conservative – the lifestyle he led didn’t really lend (itself) to that.”

The acquaintance said Cruz and the roommate broke up sometime near the end of his time at the law school.

“He’s very smart, we always knew that,” the acquaintance said. “But at least then he was very self-absorbed.”

“The funny thing is that I think you need that for the job” of president, the acquaintance concluded.

Lawyer and politician

After law school, Cruz went on to serve in several prestigious roles: clerking for Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist, a conservative, and becoming Texas solicitor general in 2003.

But Cruz burst onto the national scene in 2012 when he overcame heavy odds to beat out Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the Republican nomination for the senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchinson. The Washington Post called it the upset of the year.

“Dewhurst didn’t run a bad campaign, and while he had his share of critics on the right, he could hardly be called a liberal Republican,” the Post opined. “Cruz ran a better campaign and simply convinced voters he was more conservative.”

Few friends among colleagues

In the Federalist papers, James Madison wrote of the senate as the legislative body that will not fall victim to “sudden and violent passions,” and above all, will not be “seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.”

And yet, since taking his senate seat in January 2013, Cruz has gained a reputation as an unyielding ideologue.

In part, this is because he refuses to compromise principle for the sake of expediency. But his style has also put him at odds with senior Senators, many of whom expect a certain level of decorum and respect for seniority.

On March 14, 2013, during one heated Senate hearing on a proposed assault weapons ban, Cruz relentlessly questioned Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) about the definition of the Second Amendment. Cruz took Feinstein through a series of rhetorical questions regarding other constitutional rights, treating her like a student to his law professor, finally prompting the senior senator to point her finger at Cruz and fire off a series of icy retorts.

“I’m not a sixth grader,” Feinstein said. ” I’ve been on this committee for 20 years. I was a mayor for nine years. It’s fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it. Just know I’ve been here for a long time.”

The animosity Cruz sometimes stirs crosses the aisle as well.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), also a 2016 presidential candidate, has said that Cruz’s harsh treatment of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) during a hearing on Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense was “out of line.”

And Graham supporter and former Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) once called Cruz a “wacko bird” who only wants the “media megaphone.”

Cruz thus far has embraced his outsider status. He proudly sports in his senate office a black baseball hat emblazoned with Daffy Duck and the words WACKO BIRD.

“Isn’t it great?” he said to a GQ reporter who was preparing a profile story that appeared in September 2013.

Divider or uniter?

In announcing his intention to run for president in a speech at Liberty University, a Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia, Cruz, a scholar of all things constitutional, invoked one of the Founding Fathers:

“The purpose of the Constitution as Thomas Jefferson put it, is to serve as chains to bind the mischief of government,” Cruz said at one point during his speech.

But Cruz is known by his colleagues for a pattern of unchained, “ideological grandstanding,” as fellow Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said on the Senate floor in late July.

“Deliberation without decorum is not deliberation at all,” Hatch said. The Senate, he went on about Cruz, “has been misused as a tool to further personal ambitions, a venue to promote political campaigns and even a vehicle to enhance fundraising efforts.”

Cruz responded by praising Hatch’s speech but also by insisting there would be no change in tone.

“I would note that it is entirely consistent with decorum to speak the truth,” Cruz said in response to Hatch, one of the chamber’s most senior members. “Speaking the truth about actions is entirely consistent with civility.”

By refusing to treat Hatch and other longtime GOP senators with the expected deference, Cruz has compromised his influence in the chamber, according to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ken.), another 2016 presidential candidate. Paul last month said Cruz’s career as an influential senator is “pretty much done for.”

Paul, a firebrand himself who has frequently clashed with senior party members, including McCain, told Fox News Radio that Cruz has made things “personal” by taking to name-calling and allegations of dishonesty when addressing the GOP leadership.

“As a consequence, he can’t get anything done legislatively,” Paul said. “He is pretty much done for and stifled and it’s really because of personal relationships, or lack of personal relationships, and it is a problem.”

In an opinion column published by the RealClearPolitics website, longtime McCain aide Mark Salter wrote that Cruz is more of a “jackass” than a trailblazer. Salter’s column appeared online after senators from both parties teamed up late last month to prevent Cruz from staging a symbolic protest vote over funding for Planned Parenthood, a move rarely seen in the Senate.

“I can’t recall any other senator that was as universally loathed by his colleagues as Cruz,” Salter wrote.

After the Senate shot down Cruz’s attempt to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood by forcing a government shutdown, another prominent GOP leader hammered Cruz.

“I think most people around here are interested in getting results,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Republican Conference chairman. “They have learned sort of the hard way that there are some tactics that work and are constructive and there are some that aren’t.”

During an October campaign swing in Hooksett, New Hampshire, Cruz was asked how he would create more bipartisanship in Washington. He responded by saying that the greatest hurdle to overcome is not the differences between Democrats and Republicans but between the whims of the old guard and the principles of the young Turks.

“The biggest divide we have politically is between career politicians in Washington in both parties and the American people,” Cruz said, speaking at a public forum at Southern New Hampshire University. “If we’re going to turn around what’s wrong in Washington, we need to have leaders willing to take on the Washington cartel.”

In law school, making friends did not appear to rank high on Cruz’s list of priorities, recalled his former professor Dershowitz. Apparently, that’s true of his time in the Senate, too.

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected]

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