Cruz control: Can Ted be the game changer in US elections?

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Dec 28, 2015 07:29 IST
Ted Cruz stands on stage with his wife Heidi and daughters Catherine and Caroline when he announced his candidacy for president during an event in Virginia. (Reuters File)

When a newspaper cartoonist recently drew his daughters, aged five and seven, as monkeys, Ted Cruz was understandably outraged, as was everyone else, even his harshest critics.

Children are out of bounds. The cartoonist had crossed a red line. The Washington Post pulled the cartoon after carrying it online briefly, with an apology from the editorial page editor.

Cruz, the sharp-tongued 44-year-old Republican running for the White House, had probably for the first time in his career aroused sympathy — not hate or adulation.

But, being Cruz, he turned it into a fundraising opportunity, saying, in a way, his daughters are not fair game, but if someone crossed the line, he will not hesitate to profit from it.

“My daughters are not FAIR GAME,” he wrote in a fundraising email. “I’m sickened...I knew I’d be facing attacks from day one of my campaign, but I never expected anything like this.”

“This is an emergency — all hands on deck,” Cruz continued in the mail to supporters. “Click here to make an instant, emergency contribution and help me fight back.”

Cynical, just politics? Or just Cruz?

If Donald Trump is divisive and offensive Cruz, the man nipping at his heels in polls, has been described as just a shade better, a bit toned-down and barely less unlikable.

Fellow Republican senator John McCain has called Cruz, and others like him, “wacko birds”. President George W Bush, a fellow Texan, simply said of him, “I don’t like the guy.”

“I think he’s a great senator,” said Christopher Bedford, a senior editor at right-leaning The Daily Caller. “He’s not likable because he’s strange and just not social.”

Cruz is the less-Trump, not the anti-Trump, Republican leaders need now to stop and bring down the front-runner who, they feel, will have wrecked the party by the time he is done.

The first-time Republican senator from Texas has surged in recent polls, dislodging retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson from the second slot and winning a place next to Trump in the last debate.

Born in Canada to immigrants from Cuba, Cruz has a typically American-dream life story to tell — abandoned by his father, who reconciled later, he grew up in Houston, Texas.

He went to Princeton, an Ivy League school, then Harvard law school, as did President Barack Obama, where his professors, even those ideologically poles apart, found him brilliant.

Cruz “was an outstanding student in my class,” Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, a liberal, told a conservative news publication in 2013, when Cruz joined the Senate.

“Without a doubt he is among the smartest students I’ve ever had… I’ve had great students but he has to be at the top of anyone’s short list, in terms of raw brain power.”

Republican presidential candidate Sen Ted Cruz meets and greets supporters during his Country Christmas Tour at Rocketown in Nashville, Tennessee. (AFP)

After clerking at the Supreme Court, a prestigious assignment for fresh law school graduates, he moved back to Texas, and went to work for George W Bush’s campaign in 2000.

Cruz was appointed solicitor general of Texas in 2003, and ran for the Senate from Texas in 2012, starting out as the underdog.

But his ultra-conservatism won him the support of the Tea Party, an extreme wing of the Republican party, and its leading icons Sarah Palin and Rand Paul, who is a rival now.

And he won, entering the Senate in 2013. He proceeded to quickly seal his position as a sharp-elbowed lawmaker who was not afraid to take on his own party and its bosses.

Cruz first caught nation attention with by employing “filibuster” — speaking without a break to prevent the chamber from going about its business — to defund Obama’s healthcare reforms.

He spoke for 21 hours — reading bed-time stories to his children, including Dr Seuss’s “Green eggs and ham”, tweets from his constituents and passages from his favourite author.

But he failed to bring down the healthcare law, which remains highly unpopular with conservatives. He then helped shut down the federal government days after, over the same issue.

Republicans in DC, especially party leaders and fellow representatives, ripped into him, but voters back home in Texas loved him for it, and gave him a hero’s welcome.

Cruz has clashed frequently with his party leadership — publicly accused Senate leader Mitch McConnell of lying and charged Speaker John Boehner for resigning to help Obama.

He has positioned himself an outsider, ranged against the Washington DC establishment, a dysfunctional giant that’s everyone’s favourite target.

The senator’s religious and social conservatism has helped him make major inroads into the party’s base in early primary states such as Iowa, where he briefly overtook Trump.

They are now tied, but not before a rattled Trump went after Cruz’s faith. A showdown was expected at the last Republican debate, but they both hugged and made up on stage, in a way.

The senator’s rise excites young Republicans tired of their leadership’s so-called pusillanimity. Bedford, the young Daily Caller senior editor, is among them.

“I think Rubio, who is more liberal and more likeable, can win the general,” he said, referring to Cruz’s fellow Cuban American senator from Florida, and his bitterest foe currently.

“But I agree with Cruz more,” Bedford added.

Another young Republican, who didn’t want to be identified so as to not to be seen speaking for his employer, a rich conservative donor, agreed. But, he added, “You think Cruz will last the distance?”

Supporters cheer as Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks during a campaign stop in Oklahoma City on Wednesday. (AP)

The Big Fight

After circling each other for weeks, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio clashed at the third and last Republican primary debate recently, giving the world a first close look at their rivalry.

They are both 44. They are both first-time senators — Cruz from Texas and Rubio from Florida. And they are both of Cuban descent, and proud of it (unlike Bobby Jindal).

That’s where the similarities end, and differences begin.

Rubio is the more personable of the two, even diehard Cruz fans concede, and has carefully crafted an image of himself as a national security hawk in the mould of neo-cons.

He believes in the use of US military power to affect regime change in countries falling short of the American ideals of democracy, liberalism and equality.

The senator supports the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, in short.

Cruz, on the other hand, believes the US should let Assad continue, arguing dictators like him may fail the democracy test but are good for the region, given the complexities.

But foreign policy is just one on a long list of their differences.

They have clashed most bitterly over immigration. Rubio is at a disadvantage here because of his support for a bipartisan senate bill supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Conservatives were always queasy about it, and Rubio, wiser now because of the blowback, has tried to mitigate his role in it. But critics and Cruz won’t let him, knowing they have him pinned there. Rubio has hit back, portraying Cruz as slippery on immigration, saying he has supported citizenship too.

It’s a fight that, to the Republican leadership’s relief, has shifted focus away from Donald Trump, the man, they believe, will destroy the party if he wins the nomination.

Trump the frontrunner is also the party’s top headache.

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