Freshman U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has become a hero to both Tea Party and Christian conservatives with his uncompromising positions on both economic and social issues. As a former Texas solicitor general who has argued a dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, he also knows how to make a short, sharp, compelling argument for his positions.
I spoke with Cruz in his apartment in a Houston high-rise that has a commanding view of the city and state he now represents in Washington.
When you were a child did you have any idea that you’d be running for political office? I can tell you that this has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. Several years ago, my wife Heidi and I were having dinner with a friend of ours and he asked me, “When did you first get interested in politics?” I scratched my head and said I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t. I said, “I’m not really sure why that is.” At that point Heidi started laughing at me. Sometimes your spouse can see some things that are blazingly obvious and yet you don’t see in yourself. She said, “No wonder. Think of the family environment you grew up in.”
Tell me about that environment. My father is a pastor in south Dallas now. He was born in Cuba. He was raised in Cuba. When he was a teenager, he fought in the Cuban revolution and was thrown in prison and tortured. He almost got beaten to death at 17. He fled Cuba in 1957. He came to Texas and didn’t speak a word of English, and all he had was $100 sewn into his underwear. He got a job as a dishwasher earning 50 cents an hour, and he worked his way through the University of Texas. He and my mother owned a small business together.
So I grew up in Houston as the son of two small business owners. And I’ll tell you when I grew up as a kid my dad used to say to me: “When we faced oppression in Cuba, I had a place to go to. But what if we lose our freedom here, where do we go?” I’ve heard that ever since I was a kid. I think it is a tremendous blessing to be the child of an immigrant fleeing oppression because it makes you realize just how precious liberty is and how fragile it is. If you had done this interview back when I was 6 years old, I would have told you then that I wanted to be involved in public service fighting to preserve freedom. And I think it is the direct consequence of being the child of someone who fled oppression and saw freedom taken away.
Are you comfortable being characterized as someone who is fighting not just liberal Democrats but also the establishment within the GOP? Absolutely. I think the tea party is the best thing to happen to politics in decades. It’s a spontaneous, organic movement from the people: Millions of Americans standing to support the Constitution, to defend free market principles, to save our country.
A big motivator for me wanting to run for office was a non-profit called the Free Enterprise Institute. They took high school students, and they had us study free market economics. We would read Milton Freidman, Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Bastiat. We wrote a 20-minute speech on free market economics and we would tour all around the state speaking on free market economics. And this was as a kid—13, 14, 15 years old. This group formed a spin off group called the Constitutional Corroborators. Five of us memorized a shortened, mnemonic form of the Constitution. We would all speak at a big Rotary Club or Kiwanis Club. And while you were sitting there eating lunch, five high school students would set up easels at the front of a room and we’d write out from memory the entire Constitution in shortened mnemonic form. And in four years of high school I gave about 80 speeches all over Texas on free market economics and the Constitution. It became what I wanted to do in life, was stand up and fight for liberty and free market.
Our country’s in crisis. We’re going broke. And it’s been career politicians from both parties that have gotten us into this mess. We have a $16 trillion debt. It’s larger than our GDP, and all over the country people are fed up with the same establishment, incumbent politicians and looking for new leaders who will stand and fight for liberty and to get back to the Constitution.
What have you learned about yourself, about the political process, the state of Texas, and America during your short political career. People are hungry. They’re hungry for new leaders and they’re hungry for principled conservatives. So many of us have been burned by candidates who sound good. They talk a good game. And they go to Washington and become spineless jellyfish. Why is it hard to find a conservative who has principles, who has backbone, who can also string three sentences together? That, it often seems, is in short supply.
The pace has got to be tough on you and your family. Have we gotten to the point in politics that the pressures are so great that good people take a look at the process and decide to do something else? There are certainly sacrifices you make and the single hardest part of running for office is the impact on the family. Heidi and I have two young girls. When I walk out in the morning and Caroline, our oldest daughter, wraps her arms around my legs and says, “Don’t go, Daddy,” that breaks your heart. I spend a lot of time away from Heidi and away from the girls, but I tell you they are why I do it. I don’t want to look my girls in the eyes and tell them that their country is bankrupt. I could have done something to help save it, and I didn’t. I stayed home. I didn’t enter the fray. I didn’t enter the arena because I wasn’t willing to sacrifice what it would take. I don’t want to have that conversation with my daughters. That is a huge motivation. I think of my dad being willing to give up everything to come here to give me freedom. How could I not have that same sense of sacrifice and willingness to put it all on the line?
I know faith is a big motivator for you. You made a profession of faith at a very young age. Could you tell me about that and also about your faith journey since then? I was raised in the church and came to faith at age eight. Being a Christian and having a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior is an integral part of who I am. I think, though, that running for political office puts a particular obligation on a candidate to be very careful with how you talk about faith. Too many candidates wear their faith on their sleeve and they stand up and say, “God told me to run for office.” My view as a voter when I hear a politician say that is, “That’s great. As soon as God tells me to vote for you we’ll be on the same page.” Because I have a relationship with God, I don’t need a politician to be an intermediary.
Ronald Reagan’s faith was a very important part of who he was, but he tried to live a life so it was reflected through his life rather than just flaunting it and using it for political purposes. I think there’s an obligation to tread carefully.
As well as being a Christian in the public square, you’re also a prominent Hispanic in the public square. You’ve said Republicans do a pretty poor job of reaching out to Hispanics. You said the GOP will throw a Cinco de Mayo party and hang up a piñata and call that Hispanic outreach. What should the Republican Party be doing instead? The Hispanics are a profoundly conservative community. The values of the Hispanic community are Republican values. If you look at what resonates most profoundly, they are faith, family, hard work, patriotism. Most people don’t know that the level of military enlistment is higher among Hispanics than any other community. A friend of mine, a Hispanic entrepreneur, said to me, “Ted, when is the last time you saw a Hispanic pan handler?” Never.
Hard work, taking care of your family, faith, patriotism. Those are all conservative values. The problem Republicans have is not our values and not our policies. It’s that many candidates don’t communicate to the Hispanic community in a way that communicates respect.
What would that look like and sound like? I know very few Hispanics who are for open borders. Most members of the Hispanic community in America believe we should enforce our borders and should enforce our laws. My views on immigration are very clear. I think we need to do everything humanly possible to secure the borders. We should triple our border security and we should absolutely not adopt anything that resembles amnesty—I’m categorically opposed to amnesty.
But we should remain a nation that doesn’t just welcome but celebrates immigrants who come here and want to experience the American dream. I’ll tell you where a lot of Republicans go wrong on immigration. It’s not on the policy. It’s on the rhetoric. It’s on the language that some of us use to characterize it, which comes across as exclusionary and divisive. Why should we secure our borders? Because it’s the first thing any sovereign nation does. And in a post 9/11 world, it makes no sense that we don’t know who’s coming over our borders, what their criminal backgrounds are, their history. Republicans need to defend rule of law, the sovereignty of this country, without rhetoric that is divisive and doesn’t resonate with the Hispanic community.
I want to ask you a bit about your time as a lawyer and solicitor general. You’ve written at least 50 briefs for the Supreme Court and you’ve argued … It’s actually 80 briefs and nine cases.
When you argued before the Supreme Court, did you get nervous? Some. The first case I argued was almost 10 years ago. It was October 2003. I was 32 at the time, and I spent a great deal of time preparing. Hundreds and hundreds of hours pouring over the case law. I convinced myself that I was prepared and that I wasn’t nervous. The night before, I laid down to go to bed to sleep, and I didn’t sleep a wink. I stared at the ceiling all night. And I remember laughing to myself, “Maybe you’re not as confident as you think you are.” So my first argument, I went in without a wink of sleep.
You began your legal career at the Supreme Court. One of the great privileges of my life was to begin my career as a law clerk for Chief Justice William Reinquist. He was an incredible friend and mentor. He was a brilliant man and principled, conservative jurist who spent 34 years at the court fighting judicial activism and defending fidelity to the Constitution. Many years later I had the deep honor of serving as a pall bearer at his funeral.
Does any story about being before the Supreme Court stand out for you? What I’m wearing now are my argument boots. [Points to his feet.] These particular boots I’ve worn in just about every oral argument I did as solicitor general of Texas except, I am embarrassed and ashamed to say, in front of the Supreme Court. The reason is this: My former boss, Chief Justice Reinquist, was a stickler for attire. He had more than once begun an argument by admonishing counsel, leaning forward and saying, “Counsel, that color suit is not proper attire for an oral argument in this court.” He did not think brown was an appropriate color for the court. And there was a non-zero chance that if I wore these boots in the court, the argument would not begin with the case, it would begin with the chief justice advising me that this footwear wasn’t the proper attire to wear in the court. So I pulled out of the dust of my closet wingtips and put them on and went to do the argument.
Halfway through my tenure as Solicitor General, Chief Justice Rehnquist passed away. Justice John Roberts became chief justice and I had known Justice Roberts for many years. He was also a Rehnquist clerk, so he and I were friends for a decade before he became chief justice. One day I saw him and said to him, “Tell me, chief, do you have any views on the appropriateness of boots at oral arguments for the Supreme Court?” And he said, “Ted, if you’re representing the state of Texas, they’re not only appropriate, they’re required.” And so ever since then, I’ve worn my special boots at the court, but it took a special dispensation from the chief justice to do so.
Other than the advice to the solicitor general of Texas that it is OK to wear boots before the Supreme Court, do you have any other advice for people—especially young people—who want to put their faith and conservative values in action? Follow your passions. Life is too short to spend it doing things that you despise, that you don’t love. I say, when you wake up in the morning, what are you thinking about? What are you passionate about? What makes you feel alive? I think God gives us passions as a direction that he wants us to go. You will be happier and you’ll do a better job if you love what you’re doing.
And I would say as another thing, spend some time thinking and planning how to achieve your passions. I know an awful lot of young people who say, yeah I’d like to be x, but who knows how that happens?
There is a certain amount of serendipity about life. You can’t predict where lightning is going to strike, but you can fly your kite in a thunderstorm. God gives us the tools we need. I would also say to young people that if you have a passion of the heart, then take the time to study. If your calling is to be a great evangelist or a physician or a math teacher or what have you, study those who have gone before you. Study those who have been excellent in carrying out those callings. How did they get there? What did it take? What were the steps? Prepare yourself so that you can be in a position to carry out that plan.
You obviously had a plan from a very young age. When you look at the plan for yourself as a U.S. senator, what do you see? I intend to lead the battle to repeal every word of Obamacare. The Senate is going to be the battlefield. If you want to dramatically shrink the size and power and spending of the federal government, and eliminate our debt, the Senate is going to be the battlefield. If you want to pass fundamental tax reform, if you want entitlement reform, if you want to audit the IRS, if you want to pass a strong balanced budget amendment, the Senate will be the battlefield.
Our country is at the edge of a cliff. If we don’t turn around the direction we’re headed, we’re on the path to where Greece and Italy are. And the biggest difference between us and Greece is there are nations that can bail out Greece, but there ain’t nobody big enough to bail us out.
One of the real blessings of growing up in the family I did, with a father that, as a teenager, had been imprisoned and tortured and nearly killed, is you understood from a very young age that having principled men and women in office is how you protect yourself from tyranny.
It’s easy to be depressed, to look at the numbers, to look at the debt, to look at everything that has happened in Washington, and throw your hands up and say we’re losing everything. But I tell you, I am incredibly optimistic because across this country we are seeing a great awakening. We are seeing millions of Americans stand up and say: “We want our country back. We want to get back to first principles, back to freedom, back to the Constitution.” And I think that’s exactly what it’s going to take to turn the country around. So what I want to be doing five years, 10 years, or 20 years? Helping lead that fight.
Watch a video of Warren Cole Smith's interview with Ted Cruz:
Listen to a portion of Smith’s interview with Cruz on The World and Everything in It.