The Young, Conservative Cuban American Senator From Texas Maintains It’s The Gop That Offers True Economic Opportunity
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
I met ted cruz about 10 years ago. At least, I think it was Ted. I’m not sure. The young man I met then, and have known since, looks and sounds just like the newly minted junior senator from Texas who became a political rock star even before he was sworn in; the same lean build, boyish face, hint of a Lone Star twang. He was wicked smart and well spoken then, and those characteristics are even more in evidence now. Then and now, you’ll see that this isn’t just someone who went to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and clerked for the chief justice of the Supreme Court and worked at the Justice Department, and served as Texas solicitor general and rested on his laurels but someone who excelled at all those things in all those places.
Back then, Ted was a loyal Republican who thought the GOP’s opportunity conservatism held more promise than liberal notions of government dependency; and he seems even more convinced of that now. In those days, he was a “Bushie,” working for the Bush administration and serving as director of the office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission; by all appearances, he remains a simpatico of the Bush clan. In fact, George P. Bush, fellow Texan and next in line to the family throne, leapt to Cruz’s defense during the senate primary when Cruz’s Republican opponent put up an ad unfairly characterizing Cruz’s position on immigration as “pro-amnesty.”
So it must be the same Ted Cruz. Yet, in other ways, the person I know bears no resemblance to the caricature sketched out in the liberal media or the narrative I hear from Democratic friends. That person is “Tea Party Ted,” “Extremist Ted,” “Too-rightwing-and-acceptable-to-white-Republicans-to-relate-to-let-alone-represent-Latino-Democrats Ted.”
In what has turned out to be a mixed blessing, the Texas Tea Party endorsed Cruz. That group came away from scrapping with an American president over health care reform with a reputation for being obstinate. And because the president happened to be black, it also became known—in some quarters—as racist. So what does it say about a Hispanic elected official that he enjoys the support of people like this? To some, it says that Cruz isn’t exactly working for the advancement of Hispanics and other minorities but working against it. But nothing in politics is that simple or convenient—even if Cruz’s Democratic detractors would like to make it so.
I was reminded of that during a recent interview, just 24 hours after the 42-year-old was sworn into office and became the first Hispanic senator in the history of Texas. Just eight days after he was elected, Cruz was appointed vice-chairman of the National Senatorial Campaign Committee. Talk about being on a fast track. As they say in the Lone Star State, that’s already enough to say grace over. But, take it from me, the best part of the Ted Cruz story isn’t where he has arrived but how he got here.
Who is Ted Cruz anyway?
My friend would insist I start with the personal. He’s the husband of the former Heidi Nelson, who he met while working on the Bush-Cheney campaign. He’s the father of two darling little girls—Caroline, 4, and Catherine, 2. He’s the son of a Cuban-American father (Rafael) and an Irish-American mother (Eleanor). He’s the proud son of an immigrant; his father—who Ted says has been his hero his entire life—fled Cuba in 1957 at age 18 and came to the United States not speaking English and with no more than $100 to his name. When you have that kind of family history, politics is in your bloodstream.
“A while back,” he told me, “A friend at dinner asked me when I got interested in politics. And I said, ‘To be honest, I have been my whole life. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t interested in politics. And I’m not really sure why that’s the case.’ And, Heidi laughed. You know how our spouses can sometimes see things about us to which we’re oblivious? She said, ‘No wonder. Look how you grew up.’
“I hadn’t thought about it in that context. As you know, my dad fled Cuba as a teenager and came here seeking freedom. To be the child of an immigrant who came here with nothing seeking a better life has been a powerful motivation for me my entire life. At our house at our dinner table growing up, what was happening in politics wasn’t just a passing engagement. There was an urgency to politics. Having principled men and women in office is how you protect yourself from tyranny.”
A DOOR OPENS
And yet, despite the family bloodline, Cruz is something of an accidental politician. He had planned to run for Texas attorney general in 2010, and even went to the lengths of printing yard signs and launching a campaign—one that had to be suspended when the Republican incumbent, Gregg Abbott, refused to step aside because the higher office that Abbott had planned to run for—the U.S. Senate seat held by Kay Bailey Hutchinson—was not yet vacant. Hutchinson had decided to stay in Washington a while longer after her failed 2010 gubernatorial bid. When she finally did retire, Cruz ran for the seat as an anti-establishment conservative who wasn’t afraid to butt heads with both parties. It was musical chairs, Texas-style. Cruz’ opponent, Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst, the pick of the Republican Party establishment, spent more than $30 million in attack ads intended to crush the challenger; they failed. And so, Mr. Cruz goes to Washington —against his better judgment.
“Almost anyone in his or her right mind wouldn’t put up with the nonsense you put up with to run for office,” he says. “In the last two years, we have literally gone 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, crisscrossing the state of Texas, raising money constantly, having $35 million of attack ads run against me. Most people would not choose to jump into that arena.” So why did he enter it? The answer has a lot to do with what lured his father to these shores in the first place: freedom and liberty.
“I think the freedoms we have in America are really unique in the annals of world history,” Cruz says. “And they’re fragile. One of the consequences of being the child of an immigrant who fled oppression is that you understand just how fragile liberty is and how quickly it can be taken away.”
Much to the angst and consternation of liberal Democrats and other supporters of President Obama, Cruz thinks that this is precisely what is happening now under this administration. One of his first bills that Cruz plans to introduce is an attempt to repeal the national health care law known as Obamacare.
We can also expect Cruz to tackle other tough issues, including the need to cut spending and rein in entitlements. And there is no more beloved, or troubled, entitlement program in America than Social Security.
THE THIRD RAIL
I asked Cruz if is he is ready to join Republican colleagues who plan to force the issue of fixing Social Security. He is. “There is no doubt that we can’t deal with our fiscal mess without fundamental entitlement reform to preserve social security, to preserve Medicare, to make sure that those programs are strong because they are fundamental bulwarks of our society,” he says. “But most Republicans argue for Social Security reform the wrong way. They put on a green eyeshade and start talking about the long-term solvency of the Social Security trust fund. And that is an argument that moves some of us, and has some force.
“But in my view, far more potent is the need to create personal savings accounts that each of us owns and controls and can bequeath to our children and grandchildren. Right now, the status quo is that you have an African-American man or a Hispanic woman working as a janitor or cleaning homes. They pay into the Social Security system for 30 or 40 years, they work their fingers to the bone. They retire. They receive a few years of payments from Social Security. And they pass away. If you had personal savings accounts, that same African-American janitor, that same Hispanic housekeeper, working at very modest wages—$20,000 or $30,000 a year—would pay into the system. They retire. They receive Social Security benefits from the government. They would have acquired an additional 100,000 or 200,000 to give to their kids or grandkids to buy a house, to go to college, to start a business. That’s transformational. That’s about empowering individuals.”
Cruz also wants to preach about what he calls the economic opportunity message of conservatism—a message that, he admits, too few of his fellow Republicans are spreading. While the GOP has a reputation for only caring about the wealthy, Cruz wants it to be seen as the party that creates wealth. “The central message of the Obama campaign is that Republicans are the party of the rich and that Democrats are the party of everyone else,” he says. “I think that message is categorically false. But a great many people, including a great many Republicans, believe it. The reason I think it is categorically false is because conservative policies consistently benefit those climbing the economic ladder, seeking opportunity. And liberal policies consistently harm them. In fact, the conventional wisdom of politics—that Republicans are the party of the rich, and Democrats are the party of the poor—I think, is precisely backwards. It’s entirely wrong.”
Listening, I could tell that Cruz is just getting warmed up. “Democratic policies are harmful because they hurt the little guy starting out and starting a business, and climbing the economic ladder,” he says. “And the reason that this is so important is that, at the end of the day, our economy is not driven by giant corporations. It’s driven by mom and pop stores. It’s driven by entrepreneurs who open up a small business. When the government takes over the economy, it freezes everyone in place. What has made the United States a beacon of hope to the world is that there is no other nation on Earth that presents the economic opportunity we have here, the ability for so many people to start with nothing and achieve anything.”
PLEASING THOSE BACK HOME
To achieve things in Washington, Cruz will need to stay popular at home in Texas. Yet, one obstacle that he’s going to face, in this regard, has to do with the “Cuban-Mexican thing.” There is friction between these two tribes. Cuban-Americans represent about 3 percent of the nation’s 52 million Latinos; miniscule compared to the 70 percent made up of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Yet, Cuban-Americans are generally more educated, wealthier and have more power. They also have a reputation for looking down their noses at their often less-successful distant relatives. Still, Cuban-Americans get a head start because of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which makes it all but impossible to deport Cuban refugees once they reach dry land and puts them on the road to citizenship.
Into this telenovela walks Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American who has been elected to represent a state that is a whopping 38 percent Hispanic but where most of that population traces it roots to Mexico. That’s a pressure point.
“There are undoubtedly differences in the Hispanic community between people of different national backgrounds,” he says. “There are differences between Cuban-Americans, and Mexican-Americans, and Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans, in cultural background and history. But in my experience, the similarities vastly outweigh the differences. It’s the shared immigrant experience of coming here with nothing, not speaking the language, risking everything for the American Dream. That is a shared experience that resonates throughout the Hispanic community. And it’s been mostly Democratic partisans that have tried to inflame those differences and tried to make the argument to Mexican-Americans, ‘Well you can’t possibly vote for that Cuban guy.’ Beyond the partisans who are simply doing their job of fighting for their partisan outcomes, on the ground, our experiences are very much the same.”
He’s right about the similarities. But my friend missed one thing. Because of the head start afforded Cuban refugees under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Mexican-Americans are always going to distrust and resent Cuban-American elected officials who—when debating immigration policy, for instance—propose either easy-fix-it or get tough solutions because they think to themselves, “Well, that’s easy for you to say.”
And speaking of immigration, that is one issue that Cruz would, as a Hispanic senator from Texas, seem to have no choice but to take on. He sounds ready.
“Immigration is an issue that neither party is serious about addressing,” Cruz says. “Both parties demagogue the issue and look to inflame passions and emotions rather than adopt sensible policy. In my view, there is widespread agreement on a number of core principles on immigration, both in the Hispanic community and with Americans generally. No. 1: We need to get serious about securing the border, about stopping illegal immigration, particularly in a post 9/11 world. It doesn’t make any sense that we don’t know who is coming into this country and we don’t know their history, and their background. But No. 2, we also need to remain a nation that doesn’t just welcome but that celebrates legal immigrants who come here seeking to pursue the American Dream.”
Like so many issues that Cruz will confront in Congress, and the country’s fundamental values of freedom and liberty, immigration is an issue that the junior senator from Texas takes personally. Blame the bloodline.
THE AMERICAN STORY
As we reached the end of the interview, my friend shared with me a very personal reflection. “Yesterday, I was sworn in, at 12:10 p.m., and as I was standing on the Senate floor, I couldn’t help but think back to 1957, to my dad as an 18-year-old kid, $100 in his underwear, not speaking English, washing dishes, making 50 cents an hour. And if someone had come up to that teenage immigrant and suggested that 55 years hence, his son might be sworn into office as a United States senator representing the great state of Texas, that would have been unimaginable to him, that would have been something that he could not even conceive. And yet, yesterday, as I stood on the floor of the Senate, with my hand on the family bible, my father was sitting in the gallery looking down, as I took the oath to become a United States senator.”
At this point, I’m choking up. And I can’t help but blurt out. “Only in America, pal. Only in America.” “That’s exactly right,” he says. “It’s one small illustration of the incredible opportunity, the power of the American Dream that is present in no other nation on Earth the way it is in the United States. And my commitment in the U.S. Senate is to spend every day fighting to preserve the American Dream and that opportunity and freedom for generations to come, just like you and I have been blessed to enjoy that opportunity and freedom.”
Have at it, Mr. Cruz. Have at it.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a CNN contributor, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, and the author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.