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Meet Ted Cruz, "The Republican Barack Obama"

The tea party wonder boy is sweeping the GOP establishment off its feet. Come January, he could turn the Senate upside down.

Photograph by Benjamin SklarPhotograph by Benjamin Sklar

The night he won the runoff, all but guaranteeing he'd be the next Republican senator from Texas, Ted Cruz thanked everyone but the Academy. Speaking to a victory party packed with supporters munching on Chick-fil-A tenders, Cruz spent nine minutes going through the credits—"Dr. Ron Paul"; "our two little beautiful girls!"; "Sarah Palin"—each punctuated by rapturous applause and sheepish, head-bobbing laughter from the candidate. Like any good Texan, he thanked his mother, his father, and the Holy Ghost—"to him be the glory!"—but before he did any of this, he gave a shout-out to one of the conservative icons who had helped forge his political identity. "We should take it as a providential sign that today would be the 100th birthday of Milton Friedman," Cruz said. "A true champion for liberty, and we are walking in Uncle Milton's footsteps."

Victorious candidates don't typically name-drop Nobel Prize-winning economists from the podium, but Cruz isn't typical. He's the thinking man's tea partier, an intellectual face on a movement and ideology that have long simmered beneath the Republican mainstream. Ask those who know him best for an analogue, and you come back with a very short list. As Robert George, his mentor at Princeton, told Politico, "The closest parallel I can think of is Paul Ryan."

No member of the 113th Congress will arrive in Washington with as much hype as Cruz, who in late July survived one of the most expensive primaries in Texas history to knock off Gov. Rick Perry's second-in-command, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. George Will calls Cruz, the Princeton- and Harvard Law School-educated son of a former Cuban revolutionary, "as good as it gets"; National Review dubbed him "the next great conservative hope," gushing that "Cruz is to public speaking what Michael Phelps was to swimming." Political strategist Mark McKinnon channeled the thinking of many in the party when he proclaimed Cruz "the Republican Barack Obama." He is, with apologies to fellow Cuban American Marco Rubio, the up-and-comer du jour of the conservative movement.

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Cruz, who turns 42 in December, represents an amalgam of far-right dogmas—a Paulian distaste for international law; a Huckabee-esque strain of Christian conservatism; and a Perry-like reverence for the 10th Amendment, which he believes grants the states all powers not explicitly outlined in the Constitution while severely curtailing the federal government's authority to infringe on them. Toss in a dose of Alex P. Keaton and a dash of Cold War nostalgia, and you've got a tea party torch carrier the establishment can embrace.

Political strategist Mark McKinnon channeled the thinking of many in the party when he proclaimed Cruz "the Republican Barack Obama."

Come January, he's likely to join an increasingly powerful cadre of ultraconservative Senate Republicans, led by South Carolina's Jim DeMint and bolstered by freshmen like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, who are bent on redefining federalism and zapping the government with a shrink ray. They'll control enough votes to leave a mark on any legislation that passes through the Senate, doing to the upper chamber what Ryan and Eric Cantor did to the lower one: push the body so far right the rest of the caucus will have no choice but to move with it. Put another way: Cruz will aim to make the federal government look a lot more like Texas.

"This is a state that has, more than any other, been the gestational basis for the states versus the feds in the modern era," says Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune. "This is the state that has some couple dozen lawsuits filed against the federal government. This is the state that has been, more than any other, the Federal Republic of Anti-Obama." Ted Cruz has been at the heart of all those battles, and now he's taking the fight to Washington.

Rafael Edward Cruz's conservative baptism came at 13, when his parents enrolled him in an after-school program in Houston that was run by a local nonprofit called the Free Enterprise Education Center. Its founder was a retired natural gas executive (and onetime vaudeville performer) named Rolland Storey, a jovial septuagenarian whom one former student described as "a Santa Claus of Liberty."

Storey's foundation was part of a late-Cold War growth spurt in conservative youth outreach. (Around the same time in Michigan, an Amway-backed group called the Free Enterprise Institute formed a traveling puppet show to teach five-year-olds about the evils of income redistribution.) The goal was to groom a new generation of true believers in the glory of the free market.

Storey lavished his students with books by Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises, political theorist Frédéric Bastiat, and libertarian firebrand Murray Rothbard—and hammered home his teachings with a catechism called the Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom. (Cruz was a fan of Pillar II: "Everything that government gives to you, it must first take from you.") Storey's favorite historian was W. Cleon Skousen, an FBI agent turned Mormon theologian who posited that Anglo-Saxons were descendants of the lost tribe of Israel. Skousen was also a patriarch of the Tenther movement—whose adherents view the 10th Amendment as a firewall against federal encroachment. (By Skousen's reading, national parks were unconstitutional.)

Cruz was a star pupil. "He was so far head and shoulders above all the other students—frankly, it just wasn't fair," says Winston Elliott III, who took over the program after Storey retired. When Storey organized a speech contest on free-market values, Cruz won—four years running. "It was almost as if you wished Ted might be sick one year so that another kid could win."

Cruz and other promising students were invited to join a traveling troupe called the Constitutional Corroborators. Storey hired a memorization guru from Boston to develop a mnemonic device for the powers specifically granted to Congress in the Constitution. "T-C-C-N-C-C-P-C-C," for instance, was shorthand for "taxes, credit, commerce, naturalization, coinage, counterfeiting, post office, copyright, courts." The Corroborators hit the national Rotary Club luncheon circuit, writing selected articles verbatim on easels. They'd close with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be."
 

From Houston, Cruz moved on to Princeton and then Harvard Law School, a period of his life he refers to, with some seriousness, as "missionary work." He has said of his time in Cambridge: "The communists on the Harvard faculty are generally not malevolent; they generally were raised in privilege, have never worked very hard in their lives." He was a believer in a land of Philistines.

While at Princeton, he forged a bond with classmate (and later roommate) David Panton. As a debate team they were unstoppable, setting a university record for the number of awards they won together. A 1992 Princeton Weekly Bulletin article featured the undergrads in oversized sweaters, posing in front of a trophy case filled entirely with their spoils.

But something else happened to Cruz at Princeton: He came under the tutelage of Robert George, the original thinking man's tea partier. A Catholic political theorist whom the New York Times once dubbed "this country's most influential conservative Christian thinker," his big idea is what's known as "new" natural law. It's a spin on natural law, a foundational principle best summed up by the Declaration of Independence's promise that people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights"—freedoms that are every human's birthright and that governments must protect. The basic idea behind natural law is that, just as the world is informed by laws of mathematics and physics, so too is it shaped by a set of ethical precepts. George's theory is that this moral order can be divorced from its theological overtones entirely; even an atheist could grasp it by "invoking no authority beyond the authority of reason itself," as he puts it.

Applied to politics, however, George's theories look a lot like classic Christian conservatism. The clearest example is abortion, which George attacks not by citing Scripture, but by arguing that terminating a pregnancy violates the natural order. If abortion contradicts natural law—and natural law is, as George believes, the basis of the Constitution—then it's not a stretch to argue that the 14th Amendment should grant full citizenship to fetuses.

George met regularly with Cruz and advised him on his senior thesis, an analysis of the history and meaning of the 9th and 10th amendments. They work in tandem: the 9th implies that people have many more rights than are specifically outlined in the Bill of Rights; the 10th reserves unspecified powers for the states. For a growing movement of conservatives, these amendments have taken on an almost religious import as a very real check on the federal government's power: Delivering the mail and fighting pirates is all well and good, but don't even think about forcing a sovereign state like Texas to set up a health insurance exchange.

Titled "Clipping the Wings of Angels," Cruz's thesis draws its inspiration from a droll passage, attributed to James Madison, in Federalist 51: "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." The drafters of the Constitution intended to protect the rights of their constituents, Cruz argued, and the last two items in the Bill of Rights offered an explicit bulwark against an all-powerful state. "They simply do so from different directions," Cruz wrote. "The Tenth stops new powers, and the Ninth fortifies all other rights, or non-powers." In other words, they sharply delineate the role of the federal government and preserve individual rights—at least those that the states don't claim the authority to govern. As Cruz saw it, though, his beloved amendments had been trampled by decades of jurisprudence. Government was granting itself powers it couldn't be trusted to wield; it was playing God with the Constitution.

 

Cruz's worldview has remained unflinchingly consistent. Challenged at a Federalist Society panel in 2010 to defend his proposal to convene a constitutional convention to draft new amendments aimed at scaling back federal power, he paraphrased his 21-year-old self: "If one embraces the views of Madison...which is that men are not angels and that elected politicians will almost always seek to expand their power, then the single most effective way to restrain government power is to provide a constraint they can't change."

One thing had changed, though, in the two decades since Cruz penned his thesis: His views had started to creep from the fringe to the fore.

 

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