“Maybe World War III has started already,” said Paul Teller, Ted Cruz’s chief of staff. We were sitting in the senator’s office under the ten foot wide modernist portrait of Reagan at the Berlin Wall that dominates the room. “We always thought it would be nuclear weapons but…” He shrugged, a quizzical look on his face, as if he himself were surprised at what he had just said. But I knew where he was coming from. Who wouldn’t? The Middle East was in flames, the whole complexion of Europe changing, and America had turned tail. And we didn’t even know at that point, it was Wednesday afternoon around five, that Russia was flying cruise missiles into Syria.
I glanced over at Nick Muzin, Cruz’s deputy chief, and he didn’t seem to disagree either. Muzin is a MD/JD and Teller a Ph.D. in government. The senator clearly surrounded himself with smart guys. It spoke well of him.
And it wasn’t just guys. The day before, I had been sitting in the same spot with Victoria Coates (Cruz’s foreign policy adviser), Rachael Slobodien (his communications director) and Cruz himself, talking about many things, but mostly foreign policy because I was there on the good offices of Dr. Coates. She is an art historian, no less, with a Ph. D. in art history from UPenn and a book coming out momentarily called David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art. These include the Parthenon, Michelangelo’s David and Picasso’s Guernica. It’s Coates’ contention that the contribution of such works to the spread of democracy has been undervalued. And now the art historian was a key foreign policy adviser to a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
The case for such a person as foreign policy adviser was not as exotic as it sounded. After all, the best art historians are experts in culture, foreign languages and, of course, history. From the way they interacted it was clear she and the senator had a strong professional relationship, which apparently has gone back a number of years, their families friends.
But my focus was on Cruz himself. Conventional wisdom is that as the Republican field narrows down, he will be right there with the finalists — and for good reason. The Texas senator is famously and deservedly the most articulate spokesman for conservatism. And, as is well known, he is also a fighter.
On that Tuesday, Cruz emphasized to me how much he felt 2016 was a turning point in American history just as was 1980 when Ronald Reagan became president. It wasn’t just that he was positioning himself as a second Reagan — sure, why not? — it was more the historical forces in the air, the same forces I was discussing the next day with Teller and Muzin. America had retreated and the world was in chaos.
Cruz expressed how anxious he was to stand on a debate stage opposite Hillary Clinton, to confront her on the Iran deal. Cruz has been among the most forceful members of Congress, if not the most forceful, in opposition to the deal. But although obviously a hundred percent for American reengagement, he placed himself on a foreign policy spectrum somewhere between Rand Paul’s isolationism and what he described as Marco Rubio’s neocon interventionism. Was this campaign positioning? I’m not sure. I’m not certain how much difference in reality there would be between Cruz and Rubio on foreign affairs when in office. Events themselves may be determinative.
When you’re fortunate enough to be sitting there as long as I was chatting with someone who could be the next president of the United States, inevitably you’re spending much of your mental energy taking the measure of the man personally. His policy positions we have all heard — or most of them. And doubtless will again. On a face-to-face level I found Cruz to be warm and personable, more so than he sometimes comes across on television. He is also obviously among the top five percent (or higher) of politicians when it comes to intellectual heft. This guy gets the issues — and quickly. He’s done his homework. His staff tells me he challenges them constantly on his positions, anxious to hear the other side.
I also, as I have noted, was impressed with his team. And in Reagan’s, I would almost say inarguable, words, “Personnel is policy.”
Toward the end of our discussions, I probed Cruz a bit about the other talent in the room, meaning the other top-tier Republican candidates. Would he run with them? He didn’t get specific. It was premature. But he did say explicitly that he thought a good portion of a potential cabinet might be standing on stage with him at the debates. We may be seeing very interesting, and perhaps surprising, combinations of the top six down the line.