EXTREME MAKEOVER

03.12.13

The Reinvention of Ted Cruz

Right-wing activists love the Texas senator’s anti-establishment persona. Which is strange, because until recently he was the consummate insider. Michelle Cottle reports.

Rand Paul had his 13 hours of filibuster fame last week, but it’s his Senate colleague Ted Cruz who’s really giving the middle finger to that whole idea of upper-chamber comity and decorum. Just a couple of months in, the Texas freshman has made clear his commitment to raising as much hell and as many eyebrows as possible—much to the delight of the Tea Party anti-establishment conservatives who brung him to the dance.

Among Cruz’s buzzier moves was to get so ornery at Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings—even floating the question of whether Obama’s choice to head the Pentagon might have pocketed money from the North Korean government—that he was publicly spanked by fellow Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Then there’s Cruz’s assertion that, during his days at Harvard Law, there were at least a dozen Commies on the faculty. (This earned him a shoutout by Obama this weekend during the POTUS’s speech to the press elite of the Gridiron Club: “I can offer you an easy way of remembering the new team. If Ted Cruz calls somebody a communist, then you know they’re in my cabinet.”)

More generally, the new senator reportedly just can’t stop running his mouth in meetings, leading to much anonymous grumbling by colleagues. As one Republican member huffed to Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, Cruz is “Jim DeMint without the charm.”

Such feistiness has prompted a wave of media marveling over Cruz’s clash with his party’s establishment. “Establishment attacks only make Cruz more popular with supporters,” read a recent headline on CNN.com. Or this cheeky bit from The Atlantic Wire: “Senate reaches rare bipartisan agreement on Ted Cruz.” (Not in a good way.) Meanwhile, the conservative blogosphere has gone gaga over Cruz’s sticking it to “the establishment.” At last! A true revolutionary who will not be cowed by the Beltway sell-outs.

All of which strikes some Republicans as downright hilarious considering that Cruz arguably is one of the most elite, establishment pols around: a double Ivy Leaguer who worked his way up through the party ranks, amassing a GOP pedigree so impeccable he could very well be a missing Bush brother.

“His party credentials are unassailable,” says veteran GOP strategist Ralph Reed. “He clerked for Rehnquist, worked on the 2000 Bush campaign, and served as solicitor general of Texas in the state attorney’s office. He’s not some bomb thrower who came out of left field.”

Reed’s rundown of Cruz’s golden CV is far from complete. Cruz did his undergrad time at Princeton, and followed it up with Harvard Law, where he edited the storied Harvard Law Review. As for his political bona fides, Cruz’s labors during Bush-Cheney 2000—including legal work on the Florida recount—won him Bush-administration postings first at the Federal Trade Commission (head of Policy Planning), then the Justice Department (associate deputy AG). Heck, even Cruz’s wife, Heidi (the two met on the campaign), is establishment: an investment banker by trade, she did turns on the National Security Council under Condi Rice, as head of the Latin American office at Treasury, and as an assistant to then–U.S. trade rep Robert Zoellick. She now runs Goldman Sachs’ southwest investment management division. That’s right: the Tea Party darling’s darlin’ is a big-time investment banker. Is this a great country or what?

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Liberal pundits have painted Ted Cruz as “the new McCarthy.” But is that fair?

“He’s not some bomb thrower who came out of left field.”

It was, of course, Cruz’s Senate primary victory over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst that changed his persona from insider to outsider. While the party establishment lined up behind Dewhurst, a who’s who of Tea Party types backed Cruz: Erick Erickson, Mark Levin, Sarah Palin, Pat Toomey, Jim DeMint, FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Express…

(Worth noting: Even on Cruz’s outsiderish run, there were insiderish elements to be found. Reagan royalty Ed Meese served as chairman of the campaign, and Cruz was endorsed by the premier member of the Bush dynasty’s new generation, George P.)

When the smoke cleared, Cruz stood as a Tea Party–esque giant killer in an otherwise disappointing cycle. “He had the good fortune—which he created himself—of defeating a powerful presumed frontrunner, and he did it from the right which gave him Tea Party cred,” observes former Bushie Ari Fleischer, who worked on the 2000 campaign with Cruz.

“That really matters to the Tea Party crowd,” agrees Reed. “Were you willing to take on your own party in a very difficult race because you had things you deeply cared about in terms of issues that you wanted to get in there and fight for?”

Of course, adds Reed, to keep that street cred, a winning pol has to follow through with the fight. Cruz’s feather-ruffling persona certainly comes in handy in this department. “As much as he has a beautiful pedigree, he does cut the cloth of an outsider,” says Fleischer. In politics, adds Fleischer, style matters, and Cruz has it. “It’s the body language. It’s the muscle. It’s the outsider aura.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed that Ted was going to  be the outsider, change-Washington, sharp-elbows guy when I worked with him on the Bush campaign,” says Fleischer. “But everybody gets to have a white board and define themselves the first time they run.”

For many Republicans, Cruz’s insider core wrapped in an outsider mantle promises great things.

“Ted is the real deal,” asserts Fleischer.

“He’s running,” chuckles Reed. “And I’m not talking about for governor.”