AUSTIN, Texas -- — In the first few months of his first term in the United States Senate, Ted Cruz has been, for all practical purposes, the human equivalent of one of those flower-squirters that clowns wear on their lapels. His initiatives can often seem like non-sequiturs — he has proposed defunding the United Nations over forced abortions in China. And his statements can seem almost self defeating, such as when he described decorated war veterans Chuck Hagel and John Kerry as “less than ardent fans of the U.S. military.”
Not surprisingly, the freshman from Texas has irritated Democrats. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Calif., described him as “arrogant” and “patronizing” after the new arrival offered the 20-year Senate veteran a lesson on the Constitution during a debate over assault weapons. He’s also been a headache for GOP leaders, expressing reluctance to back fellow Texas Republican John Cornyn for minority whip on the grounds that he had to make sure the candidate he supported would “stand and fight for conservative principles.” (National Journal ranked Cornyn as the second-most conservative member in the pre-Cruz Senate last year.)
Cruz’s ecumenical approach to criticism has, however, contributed to some confusion about what he actually believes. The question of whether Cruz is an isolationist or an interventionist, for example, has elicited some debate among conservatives; he’s pro-Israel, hawkish on Iran, yet apparently skeptical of interventionism and nation-building. He wants more border security, and less illegal immigration — but he has also asserted that the United States is and should remain a country that “celebrates” legal immigrants. Also, he keeps talking about the great 20th-century political philosopher John Rawls, who has more often been associated with the left than the right — to the great frustration of Democrats, who feel that Cruz is, disingenuously co-opting their concerns.
Cruz is often lumped in with fellow GOP rising stars like Rand Paul, Ky., Marco Rubio, Fla., Chris Christie, N.J., Bobby Jindal, La., Paul Ryan, Wis., but of all of them, he is perhaps the toughest to pin down ideologically. So what exactly does Cruz believe?
First, it’s important to understand that foreign policy isn’t his primary focus: He’s economically liberal, in the classical sense, and economic issues make up the bulk of his political message. His stump speech, the one that references Rawls, is a call for the GOP to recast its small-government stance to emphasize what he’s calling “opportunity conservatism” — the belief that conservatives “should conceptualize and should articulate every domestic policy with a laser focus on easing the means of ascent,” as he put it in a January speech in Austin.
Beyond economics, his approach is a bit more idiosyncratic. He’s ideological, even compulsive, with regard to the Constitution. This is a longstanding preoccupation — as an undergraduate at Princeton, he wrote his thesis on the 9th and 10th amendments — and apparently a sincere one. It helps explain why he gave his colleague Rand Paul a much-needed break during his March 6 anti-drone filibuster. He’s firmly against gun control, but that stance is rooted in his reading of the Constitution rather than any affinity for gun culture. (Cruz, more nerd than sportsman, would look no more plausible skeet shooting than Barack Obama.)