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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.