WASHINGTON — Ted Cruz has only been Texas’ junior U.S. senator for two months, but he has wasted no time propelling himself into national headlines.
His prosecutorial line of questioning of President Obama’s defense secretary nominee, Chuck Hagel — including insinuations that the Vietnam War veteran might have ties to foreign enemies — sparked comparisons to McCarthyism. His rogue style and discounting of so-called rules of decorum has thrilled his ultra-conservative fan base, which hates nothing more than Washington, D.C.’s business as usual. He has even been credited with giving John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas and the upper chamber's minority whip, either the political will or political cover (depending on whom you ask) to shift further to the right.
On Tuesday, two hours ahead of Hagel’s confirmation vote, The Texas Tribune sat down with Cruz in his temporary office space in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building to talk about his new gig so far.
TT: You’ve been on the job nearly two months. If you could go back in time, is there anything you’d do differently?
Cruz: We have had a lot of challenges in the Senate, all coming at once. My focus has been and will continue to be on doing my job. Two of the most significant challenges we’ve seen have been, No. 1, the efforts by a number of Democrats to push an aggressive gun control agenda. I think that agenda does not work to reduce violent crime and is inconsistent with the constitutional protections of the Bill of Rights. In addition, we have obviously had the very controversial nomination of Chuck Hagel. And in both instances — with guns, I serve on the Judiciary Committee; with Hagel, I serve on the Armed Services Committee — in both instances I have taken my job seriously to stand up for the constitutional rights of Texans and to ensure, to at least help to ensure, a careful inquiry into Chuck Hagel.
TT: Let’s talk about Hagel. In retrospect, could you or should you have made the same point — that there was not enough disclosure from the nominee — without insinuating that he might have ties to foreign enemies? And how do you respond to the comparisons to Joseph McCarthy?
Cruz: It is interesting that in just a few weeks, The New York Times has repeatedly targeted my defense of conservative principles as objectionable in their view. I think the fact that The New York Times is so hysterical after just a few weeks may perhaps be a sign that we’re doing something right. The attacks that were leveled at me in the media were organized and concerted, and they were designed for one principal purpose: to divert attention from Chuck Hagel’s substantive record — which has been such that even The Washington Post [editorial board] described that record as “near the fringe of the Senate” — and to distract from Hagel’s refusal to answer reasonable questions concerning financial disclosure. I think it is unfortunate that those attacks to some extent achieved their objective, which is changing the conversation from Hagel’s record, which is where the conversation should be. It’s worth underscoring that my focus in the Hagel confirmation, and my focus in every other proceeding in which I participate in the Senate, has focused on substance and, in particular, Mr. Hagel’s policy record. It has not focused on personal issues, and, indeed, the character attacks that have been raised have been leveled at me for asking questions that I think every senator should be concerned to know the answer.
TT: To those who suggest you’ve broken some longstanding rules of decorum in the Senate, that you’ve frustrated senior members in your own party, how do you respond? Even Arizona Sen. John McCain seemed to come to Hagel’s defense.
Cruz: Most of the attacks in the media have featured characterizations either from Democrats or from the media itself. Rarely have they focused on what I actually said, or played clips of my questioning of Mr. Hagel. And perhaps that would be because if one looks at what I said at the hearings, I repeatedly have praised Chuck Hagel’s personal character, his sacrifice, his honor defending this country and volunteering for Vietnam. My approach to the Senate every day that I’ve been here and every day going forward embraces civility as the proper way to deal with anyone. Of course comity is important. But I don’t think comity means avoiding the truth. I don’t think comity means being unwilling to ask difficult questions about a nominee’s record. I think Texans elected me to do my job, and that is certainly what I am trying very hard to do.
TT: You’ve said it’s premature to talk about how to address the millions of immigrants living in the country illegally before the border is secure. Are there any iterations of comprehensive immigration reform currently being discussed that you could consider getting behind?
Cruz: Of course. Immigration is an issue on which I think there is near universal agreement that our current system is broken. And there is widespread agreement among most Americans that, No. 1, we need to get serious about securing our border. In a post 9-11 world, it doesn’t make any sense that we don’t know who’s coming into this country, we don’t know their criminal history, we don’t know their background. No. 2, there is widespread agreement that we should continue to be a nation that doesn’t just welcome, that celebrates legal immigrants. In my view, we could pass with bipartisan, substantial majorities through Congress legislation that improves border security, that takes real steps to secure the border, and that improves and streamlines legal immigration, that makes the process easier to deal with, that reduces the burden on legal immigrants of dealing with the federal bureaucracy. And that expands the ability for high-skilled immigrants to come to this country and help produce economic growth and create jobs. Legislation along those lines could pass tomorrow with large bipartisan support, except President Obama doesn’t want it to pass. Unfortunately, in my view, I think the greatest obstacle to passing common sense immigration reform is President Obama. He wants an election issue to campaign on in 2014, in 2016. For example, at the State of the Union, when he addressed immigration, he did so in a partisan, divisive manner that wasn’t designed to get anything done. It was part of the 24-hour campaign that we’ve seen from the president. In my view, he should stop campaigning and start working to solve the enormous fiscal and economic challenges facing this country.
TT: What’s the single-biggest lesson you’ve learned so far in your time in Washington?
Cruz: There are enormous challenges facing the country. And I think it is unfortunate in the eight weeks that I’ve been here that we have seen — that we have not seen — leadership from the Democrats and leadership from the president in terms of, No. 1, reducing spending and our out-of-control debt, and No. 2, economic growth. Of all of the economic data that swirl about, the most troubling in my judgment is 0.8 percent. That has been the average annual growth of our economy each of the last four years under President Obama. That is a fraction of historic levels. Since World War II, our economy has averaged growing 3.3 percent. Every other economic and fiscal problem depends upon growth for us to be able to solve them. If we want the 23 million people who are out of work to find jobs, we need growth. If we want to correct the train wreck that is the federal budget, we need growth. And growth should be an area of real bipartisan cooperation. I think it is unfortunate that President Obama, rather than being willing to work across the aisle to work productively on pro-growth policies, has chosen to embrace a partisan agenda, and an agenda that doesn’t focus on jobs and economic growth, which is what I think Texans and what I think Americans want all of us to be focusing on.