In his first significant leadership role — as president of the Screen Actors Guild — Ronald Reagan fought communist influence in Hollywood and prevailed in a tough contract negotiation.
In his first command — as a captain during the Black Hawk War — Abraham Lincoln overruled his men to prevent the execution of a suspected Potawotami spy.
To win his first congressional race, Richard Nixon disingenuously linked his opponent to communist sympathizers, the start of a pattern that would earn Nixon the nickname “Tricky Dick.”
With presidents, the past is often prologue. So what do Ted Cruz’s early leadership roles tell us about his presidential proclivities?
Now that Cruz regularly polls toward the top of an ever-shrinking field, his early tenure bears closer scrutiny. Cruz has gained fame as a social conservative and an unwavering opponent of Obamacare. In his first major leadership role, however, he developed economic policy as the director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy Planning.
At the FTC, Cruz’s agenda could have been written by Milton Friedman.
Cruz promoted economic liberty and fought government efforts to rig the marketplace in favor of special interests. Most notably, Cruz launched an initiative to study the government’s role in conspiring with established businesses to suppress e-commerce. This initiative ultimately led the U.S. Supreme Court to open up an entire industry to small e-tailers. Based on his early support of disruptive online companies, Cruz has some grounds to call himself the “Uber of American politics.”
Moreover, and perhaps surprising to some, Cruz sought and secured a broad, bipartisan consensus for his agenda. Almost all of Cruz’s initiatives received unanimous support among both Republicans and Democrats.
Ted Cruz a consensus-builder? He was, at the FTC.
From the start of his tenure in 2001, Cruz strategically reoriented the FTC to focus on ways in which government restricts competition. To lay a foundation, Cruz organized a conference on regulatory barriers to e-commerce. Large online companies, such as Amazon and eBay, explained that government regulation and legacy laws threatened the growth of e-commerce. For example: funeral licensing laws meant online retailers could not legally sell caskets into certain states, even though they typically offered much lower prices. Other laws hampered online sales of cars, contact lenses, and legal and medical services.
In response, no brick-and-mortar company defended the government’s role … in regulating other industries.
Instead, like taxi cab drivers in New York or “green” energy companies demanding subsidies, every special interest argued that his particular industry uniquely required protection from competition.
The auto dealers complained that cars were too “sophisticated” for e-commerce, the funeral dealers explained that caskets were a product for “a very sensitive and specific time,” and the lawyers expounded that “we’re talking about something very different when we’re talking about access to the justice system.”
Cruz had little patience for anyone who sought to use the government to limit competition.
After the conference, Cruz testified at a hearing supporting the online sales of contact lenses and pushed the FTC to file an amicus brief supporting online casket vendors. Cruz also initiated a comprehensive study of the wine industry, which found that online competition lowered prices without increasing underage drinking. The study’s findings were ultimately embraced by the Supreme Court and by state legislatures around the country, who opened an entire industry to online competition and new small businesses.
Beyond the e-commerce initiative, Cruz also reoriented the FTC’s use of antitrust laws. For most of its history, the FTC has focused on private conduct that harms competition, such as (allegedly) anticompetitive mergers. Under Cruz’s leadership, the FTC instead targeted governmental conduct that harms competition. For example, the FTC successfully sued a state dental board to open the dental market to competition from non-dentists. This type of lawsuit primarily helped lower-income individuals, who would get more and cheaper options for basic health care.
Cruz also sent dozens of letters to states to fight new efforts to enshrine crony capitalism. Cruz sent a letter to New York to challenge a legislative attempt to impose a “minimum markup” on the sale of gasoline. This bill was a naked attempt to force gas stations to raise prices, but was couched as helping consumers. Cruz also sent letters to promote competition in financial services and energy markets. Through it all, Cruz kept his focus on the ultimate little guy — the consumer.
Perhaps surprisingly, Cruz secured a high degree of consensus in pursuing his agenda.
As an independent agency, the FTC has five commissioners, and during Cruz’s tenure, two of them had served in President Clinton’s administration. All five commissioners voted to support almost all of Cruz’s proposals.
Cruz achieved this consensus by listening to policy experts and political opponents. He listened to the FTC’s economic experts and marshaled empirical economic analysis to support his policy objectives. He solicited input from prominent Democrats, including the late Senator Howard Metzenbaum, who spoke at the e-commerce conference. In addition, Cruz worked to develop personal relationships across the aisle. He regularly met with Democratic commissioners and incorporated their ideas into his policy proposals.
What does all this tell us about a prospective Cruz administration?
Based on his record, a President Cruz would fight for free markets and against crony capitalists. Indeed, in his campaign, Cruz has spoken out against ethanol subsidies — to farmers in Iowa, no less — and against the FCC’s anticompetitive net neutrality rules. Cruz also supports a flat tax, which would improve the transparency of the tax code and limit handouts to special interests.
Moreover, a Cruz administration would seek meaningful change, and where possible, broad bipartisan support. Cruz is not one to nibble around the edges or bow to entrenched interests, but he does listen to experts and seek support from all quarters. If President Cruz becomes a reality, future historians might point to his time at the FTC as a harbinger of a presidency that is both conservative and consequential.