Who is Ted Cruz and how did he nearly crash the US government?

Ted Cruz, a first-term senator from Texas, took the US government to the brink of disaster. He has paid a high price in credibility, but he wasn't always a punchline.

On Wednesday evening, America held its collective breath. Not for a Presidential proclamation or a vote in Congress. In fact, all signs indicated that finally a deal had been reached that would pass a vote in both houses on Capitol Hill, and that the President would sign.

No, America held its breath waiting to see if a first-term senator from Texas, the increasingly erratic Ted Cruz, would try to single-handedly scupper the whole thing by filibustering the Senate vote on the deal to raise the debt ceiling and finally re-fund the government. Was he bluffing?

Of course he was. The Democrats – and the vast majority of moderate Republicans who support them – were holding all the cards. The defeat, when it came, was humiliating for the right-wing Tea Party faction that had been holding out against Obamacare. The government is re-funded, and the debt ceiling is raised. Polls show that the American people never supported their wild and mad crusade, and the mainstream of American media mocked him. John McCain, Cruz's Senate colleague, the man who put Sarah Palin on a Presidential ticket, mocked the comparisons Cruz was making that people who supported the Affordable Care Act were like Chamberlain appeasing the Nazis. Everyone mocked him. The Houston Chronicle, his local newspaper, publicly withdrew its endorsement of him this week.

But Ted Cruz wasn't always a punchline.

One year ago he was riding a tremendous political wave. He had just achieved one of the biggest upsets of the year when he beat sitting liutenant-governor of Texas David Dewhurst in the Senate primaries with a plucky long-shot campaign that came out of nowhere. The news website Mother Jones called him “The Republican Barack Obama” in December 2012, once he had cruised to victory in the election in November. Right up until this summer he was being hailed as the potential saviour of the Republican party.

His career had already been impressive, if not high-profile, when he entered the primary race. The first Hispanic ever to be a clerk to a Supreme Court Justice, he also served on the legal team fighting Bush v Gore after the 2000 Presidential election. When he was appointed solicitor-general of Texas in 2003 he was the youngest in America. But he was by no means a well-known figure when he launched his campaign, inauspiciously, in a conference-call to bloggers. Conservatives applauded his entry in the race, but most thought Dewhurst nonetheless had it in the bag.

They were wrong. Cruz soon started attracted the attention of powerful allies – including the Tea Party, who endorsed his campaign. The conservative blog Red State described him as a man with “the battle scars to show he is ready to go to Washington and fight to take our country back from the establishment.”

Quickly gathering steam, he outflanked Dewhurst on the right, beating him to a virtually assured seat in the Senate by a humiliating fourteen points.

Rafael Edward Cruz was born in Alberta, in Canada, to American parents who worked in the oil business. His father, also called Rafael, originally fought for Castro in the revolution, fled Cuba in 1957 after falling foul of the regime, and is now a pastor, with copper-bottomed conservative credentials. His father turned out to be one of Cruz's best political assets in his campaign for the Senate. A profile in the National Review earlier this year described how Cruz senior contributed as both a strategist and a speaker, and won the admiration of some seriously big names, including that behemoth of conservative radio, Rush Limbaugh.

With his father's help, Ted Cruz's rise from outsider to Tea Party darling to Republican rising star was meteoric. So what happened? How did we get from that Ted Cruz to the man who, in the first act of the budget negotiation drama, cast himself in the role of court jester, with a bizarre 21-hour epic speech on the floor of the house which included the Senator reading from Green Eggs and Ham and quoting from reality TV show Duck Dynasty? To the Senator whose Tea Party faction has been holding the nation's federal budget hostage, and threatening debt default if Obamacare wasn't de-funded – and who has led his party into a humiliating defeat?

There were warning signs. Cruz cosied-up to Tea-party conspiracy theories during his campaign. He spoke out against what he described as the dangers of Sharia law, and published an article on his campaign website in which he made clear that he thought George Soros – Glenn Beck's bête noir - was plotting with the United Nations to abolish, of all things, golf courses. The seeds of this shutdown, of this defeat – of Green Eggs and Ham – were clearly sown back in the campaign, when Cruz began to suckle at the Tea Party teat.

The ironic thing is that this should have been a victorious moment for Cruz and his faction. The roll-out of Obamacare happened in the last two weeks quietly, in the background, behind the headlines about the shutdown and Congressional gridlock. If he had not been showboating, Cruz and his allies could have pointed to the technological bugs that plagued the policy's launch. Instead, by fixating on de-funding the law above all else, Cruz not only missed that opportunity, but also any chance Republicans might have had to make other arguments during the budget debate; reducing the deficit, for example. The public opinion game was lost. In an ABC News poll on 14 October, 74 per cent of respondents disapproved of the way the Republicans had handled the crisis, of whom 54 per cent “strongly” disapproved.

It is theoretically possible this is all part of Cruz's plan, perhaps for a run at the 2016 Presidential nomination as an outsider, an anti-Romney. Even while moderates urged him to change focus and dial down the rhetoric, his Political Action Committee, which raises funds for his political campaigns, has increased nearly threefold.

Forcing the shutdown and fighting party moderates over Obamacare may not have been popular with independents, or even with moderate conservatives, but with the extreme rump of the party it has unsurprisingly played extremely well. The Washington Post reported on October 11 that a straw poll of favoured 2016 Presidential candidates taken by Family Research Council Action which is seen as an important early indicator of right-wing preferences for a Republican candidate, saw Cruz win with 42 per cent of the vote, a double-digit lead over the next-nearest winner. The poll is. After two disastrous Republican Presidential candidates who were seen by the party as moderates, it is possible that Cruz is hoping the party will want to select a hard-liner this time.

But, if the six times he was heckled at the Straw Poll presentation are anything to go by, things are not going entirely to plan. He has made enemies of his own party, and is considered a joke by Democrats and the media. “If this man can get the nomination to be the Republican nominee for president,” said Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader this week, “then I pity the Republican party.”

Cruz, in the end, was bedazzled by the adulation of the Tea Party. He made his grab for the fame and headline profile of figures like Michelle Bachman or Sarah Palin, and got it. Only now, as the dust settles, he is finding he has paid a high price in credibility.

It is a dark sign for America's fractured politics that Cruz might yet be vindicated. He's vowed to fight on to de-fund Obamacare. The government is only funded until January. The debt ceiling crisis is only postponed until .

Cruz and the Tea Party may be down, but they aren't out yet.

 

Ted Cruz speaks to the media after meeting with Republican senators on 16 October 2013. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Getty
Show Hide image

Millennial Man: How Emmanuel Macron is charming France's globalised youth

At the French presidential candidate's London rally, supporters cheered for a reformist. 

If it weren’t for the flags – the blue, white and red of France, but also the European Union’s starred circle – the audience’s colourful signs and loud cheers could have been confused with those of a rock star’s concert. There even were VIP bracelets and queues outside Westminster Central Hall, of fans who waited hours but didn’t make it in. This wasn't a Beyonce concert, but a rally for France’s shiny political maverick, the centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. He arrived on stage under a thunder of applause, which lasted the full minute he took to salute the first rank.

Since he resigned from his position as François Hollande’s economy minister last August, the 39-year-old relative political newbie – he used to be a banker and only joined the French government in 2014 – has created his own movement, En Marche, and has been sailing in the polls. In this he has been helped by the fall from grace of Conservative candidate François Fillon. Macron, who can count on the support of several Socialists, the centrist François Bayrou and the unofficial backing of the Elysee palace, is seen as the favourite to face hard-right Marine Le Pen in the election’s run-off in May.

A screen displayed photos of supporters from around the world (Singapore, Morocco, United States, “We’re everywhere”) as well as the hashtags and Snapchat account for the event. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” played as a team of young “helpers”, en anglais dans le texte, were guiding the 3,000 French expatriates to their seats. “We’re about 90 helpers tonight,” said Pierre-Elie De Rohan, 23. A History student at University College London, he joined the youth branch of En Marche via a school group.

The movement has been very active among students: “We’re in all London universities, King’s, Imperial, UCL”, he said. “It’s exciting”, echoed fellow helped Arcady Dmitrieff, 18, from UCL too. “We feel like we’re taking part in something bigger than us.”

Hopeful millennials are flowing to En Marche en masse. Macron is young, attractive, and though, like most French politicians, he is a graduate of the elite École Nationale d'Administration school, voters still see in him a breath of fresh air. “He’s neither left-wing nor right-wing," praised helper 18-year-old Victoria Tran. Her friend Adele Francey, 18, agreed. “He transcends the political divides that have confined us for the past thirty years," she said. “And he looks sincere," added Lena Katz, 18. “He really believes he can make a change.” The Macron brand, a mix of smart marketing, cult figure (the first letters of En Marche are Macron’s initials) and genuine enthusiasm previously unseen on the French campaign trail, has given him momentum in a political system highly based on the leader’s personality.

For Katz, Tran and many of their friends, France’s 2017 presidential race is their first election. “I want to be invested and to vote for someone I like," Tran said. “More than the others, Macron represents our generation.” Their close elders are hoping for a political renaissance, too – perhaps the one that was supposed to come with François Hollande in 2012. “I really believe he can make it," said Aurelie Diedhou, 29, a wholesale manager who has lived in London for two years. “On many topics, he’s more advanced than his rivals, a bit like Barack Obama in 2008. In France, when a politician has the pretention not to be corrupt, or to have held a job before entering politics, they’re accused of marketing themselves. But it’s just true.”

Macron occupied the stage for a good hour and a half – during which his supporters never failed to cheer, even for boring declarations such as “I want more management autonomy”. He passionately defended the European Union, and pleaded for its reform: “I am European, and I want to change Europe with you.”

Such words were welcomed by French expatriates, many of whom have feared that their life in the UK may be turned upside down by the consequences of the Brexit vote. “Britain has made a choice, which I think is a bad choice, because the middle classes have lacked perspectives, and have had doubts," Macron said. He promised to stand for the rights of the French people who “have made their life choice to settle in Britain”.

As far as Macron's UK co-ordinator, Ygal El-Harra, 40, was concerned, that the candidate would make a trip across the Channel was self evident: “We’ve got people in Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, in Cornwall. And they’re not just bankers and traders: some work in delivery, restaurants, many are students... They perfectly represent French society, and we want to keep in touch with them.”

In 2012, London’s French community opted for Nicolas Sarkozy over Hollande, but the vote was very close (48 per cent to 52 per cent). Just as within France, where he appeals to both left and right-wingers, Macron’s internationally-minded liberalism, coupled with his fluent, fairly well-accented English, could win big among the expat. And they matter - there are about 100,000 votes to grab. “For us who are in London, it’s important to have an open-minded, international candidate," the teenager Tran said.

Rosa Mancer, a 45-year-old strategist who has lived in London for 20 years, agreed. “I loved what he said about Europe. We must reform it from the inside," she said. But she admitted her support for Macron was “a choice by elimination”, due to the threat of the far-right Front National and the corruption case surrounding Fillon. “He’s got no scandal behind him," she said. Unlike their younger peers, voters with more experience in French politics tended to choose the dynamic Macron because he was the least compromised of the lot. “It’s certainly not Marine Le Pen, nor Benoît Hamon, the sectarist Fillon or the Stalinist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who will rebuild our fossilised France”, said Roland Stern, a Frenchman in his sixties. “In 1974, Giscard D’Estaing didn’t have a party, either. But once he had won, the others followed him.”

British politicians had come to see the French phenomenon, too. Labour’s Denis MacShane and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sat among the VIPs. For the latter, the enthusiasm around a promising and brilliant politician rang a bell. Looking back on the 2010 general election, the former Liberal Democrat leader reflected: “Although my platform was very different at the time, the basis was that the status quo was letting people down and that we needed something different.” Clegg’s advice to Macron? “Make sure you seek to set and manage people’s expectations.”

As Clegg knows too well, there is a danger in bringing everyone together, and that is keeping everyone together without disappointing them all. If his name comes first on the evening of May 7, Macron’s real challenge will begin: forming a government with his supports for a broad political spectrum, and dropping vague pledges and marketing slogans to map out a clear way ahead.

In Westminster, hundreds of supporters were literally behind him, seated in tiers on stage. A massive screen showed a live close-up of Macron's youthful face. Something in his picture-perfect smile seemed to wonder what would happen if the crowd stopped cheering.