Ted Cruz Embraces 'Wacko Bird' Label

Sep 24, 2013
Originally published on September 24, 2013 3:42 pm

Freshman U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas began an old-fashioned talking filibuster this afternoon, to try to get the rest of the Senate to go along with his plan to defund Obamacare.

He will probably not be at a loss for words.

A new profile by Jason Zengerle in GQ magazine calls Cruz “the most despised man in the U.S. Senate” but also a dazzling orator, who as Texas Solicitor General won four out of eight arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Republican leaders such as John McCain, who has called Cruz a “wacko bird,” intensely dislike Cruz for his take-no-prisoners political style and staunch anti-government views. And Ted Cruz has been office less than a year.

Zengerle joins Here & Now to talk about the senator.

Guest

  • Jason Zengerle, senior staff writer for Politico and author of the profile of Cruz in GQ. He tweets @zengerle.
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ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Texas freshman Senator Ted Cruz has begun his promised filibuster to get the Senate to go along with defunding Obamacare.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE SESSION)

SEN. TED CRUZ: You know, there are a lot of folks in the Washington establishment who don't want to hear from us, the chattering classes quick to discipline anyone who refuses to blindly fall in line. You are not supposed to speak for the people.

YOUNG: And Cruz said he's going to talk until he can no longer stand. It might happen. A new profile in GQ magazine calls him a dazzling orator, a Princeton debater, a Texas solicitor general who won four arguments before the Supreme Court. But some fellow Republicans say Cruz - who's only been in office nine months - wants them to commit political suicide by asking them to vote against their own spending plan and risking a government shutdown in order to keep the Cruz provision to defund Obamacare.

Jason Zengerle is senior staff writer for Politico's new magazine. He profiled Ted Cruz for GQ in an article titled "Ted Cruz: The Distinguished Wacko Bird from Texas." And Jason, it was Arizona Republican John McCain who called Cruz a wacko bird after Cruz and Rand Paul filibustered the nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary. But you also heard from Republicans who say Cruz is smarter than some of the things he's doing.

JASON ZENGERLE: Yeah, Cruz has a reputation, I mean, in part because of his Ivy League pedigree, but also just, you know, if you talk to him in conversation, you recognize he's a very, very bright guy, and he's kind of a policy intellectual. But since he's run - since he started running for office in Texas, you know, two and a half years ago, he's really recast himself as a populist.

And he's not really participating in any of the kind of, you know, more high-level policy discussions that are consuming, you know, conservative intellectuals right now. He's scoring a lot of points in Washington. And I think people who know him well from over the years are a little bit flummoxed that this is the way he's behaving.

YOUNG: Where is he scoring points?

ZENGERLE: He's scoring points with conservative activists. I mean, he is saying the things that they all feel, and he's sticking out really far-right positions. And anybody in the Senate - any Republicans in the Senate who are to his left - which, you know, doesn't take much to be his left on some of this stuff - he's branding them as squishes and members of the surrender caucus and sell-outs. And this is music to a lot of Tea Party activists here, especially in states, you know, early presidential states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

YOUNG: And he's gotten a standing ovation in Iowa for talking about defunding the IRS. Well, tell us more about his story, because that's also very appealing. As you said, it's cinematic. You couldn't make it up. Born in Canada to an American mother who married a Cuban who fought Batista on the side of the rebel Castro, was beaten and jailed - and this is in the Cuban Revolution - came to America penniless, and had a conversion. He's now against Castro.

ZENGERLE: Yes, he's very much against Castro, and he's also very much against Obama. He - his father, Rafael, who's 74 - Ted Cruz has kind of risen - as his political star has risen, Rafael's has, as well. Cruz talks about his father so frequently, that Rafael now is going out on the speaking circuit and makes very conservative speeches, comparing Obama to Castro, and things like that. I mean, Cruz's life story, I mean, as he tells it, really begins with his father story and the escaping from Cuba and pursuing the American dream in the United States. He eventually became an oil and gas executive.

But one part of the story that Cruz doesn't tell publicly very often, which I have found out about my reporting, is that when Cruz was a teenager, Rafael's oil and gas exploration business, it cratered, thanks to the brief downturn in the oil industry. And Rafael went bankrupt, lost all of his money. But it seems, then, Cruz, it almost kind of redoubled his efforts to excel. And he wound up still managing to make out of the situation, going to Princeton on scholarship, getting a lot of financial aid, and then from there, going on to Harvard Law.

YOUNG: So Ted Cruz is, as you say, propelled. He studies conservative economics, and then he goes on into politics. He's in the Bush campaign, where he starts stepping on some toes.

ZENGERLE: Yeah. Cruz has been one of those guys - and you sort of see this throughout his entire career. He's a very bright guy, but also very ambitious, as well. And those ambitions do rub people the wrong way. On the Bush campaign, he did a great job, by all accounts, in terms of working in the policy shop there. And then also, during the Florida recount, Cruz was on the legal team and, you know, according to people, really played a very key role in ultimately winning Bush Florida, which won him the White House.

But, at the same time, he really alienated a lot of his colleagues. They thought that he was, you know, always boasting about his own accomplishments. He became very famous for sending out rather mundane emails in the middle of the night. They were so mundane that some people suspected he actually programmed his computer to send them out while he was asleep, so that when it came time to divide up the spoils among people on the campaign staff and, you know, the administration was starting, Cruz did not get a plum assignment in the White House like a lot of his colleagues. He ended up having to go to the Federal Trade Commission.

YOUNG: And he goes to be Texas' solicitor general, represents some of Texas' most conservative laws before the Supreme Court. With tea party support last year, he's sent to Washington where he hasn't sponsored any real legislation. Does that matter to his supporters?

ZENGERLE: No. And I think this is what's so interesting about Cruz. He's made the calculation that nothing's going to get done in Washington anyway, so there's really no point in trying. Traditionally, when new senators arrive - well, one thing, they lay low. Cruz is definitely not doing that. But if they are going to be seen and heard, they usually try to do grand, kind of bipartisan gestures; what Marco Rubio did with the immigration legislation. Cruz, I think, realizes or he believes that the political moment isn't going to reward that, so he's trying something completely different.

YOUNG: What might he see as a win? Because it's thought that he doesn't stand a good chance of getting senators to defund Obamacare. So what - why would he be doing this? What would a win be for him?

ZENGERLE: Well, he's certainly, up until now, endeared himself to a lot of conservative activists across the country. I mean, I think the really interesting thing we're going to see this week is whether he maybe got a little bit ahead of himself. But he didn't actually expect the House to go along with what he was asking for. Because now that the House has done that and has kicked it back to the Senate, he's in kind of an impossible position.

I mean, he was never going to win this fight. And I think the question is did he think it would get as far as it's gotten now? He has to find some way to get out of this corner he's kind of painted himself into.

YOUNG: You say that some say that this freshman is the most despised man in the U.S. Senate.

(LAUGHTER)

ZENGERLE: He might be. But I think, you know, as far as Cruz is concerned, that's not a bad thing.

YOUNG: Well, but might he also be one of the most powerful.

ZENGERLE: That's - yeah, that's the question. I mean, if you look at the crisis that we're facing this week, he's driven it to this point, you know, in a way that is really kind of surprising. I don't think anyone - when he announced that he wanted to defund Obamacare, I don't think anyone took it seriously.

And he's now - he was able to gin up enough grassroots support for this that the House felt that, you know, the House leadership and Boehner felt they had to do it. So, yeah, he's pretty powerful in that respect.

YOUNG: Jason Zengerle, senior staff writer for Politico. His article about Ted Cruz is in the current issue of GQ. Jason, thank you.

ZENGERLE: Thank you.

YOUNG: And, again, Congress has till next Monday to pass some kind of spending legislation or risk government shutdown. Stay tuned. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.