Ted Cruz And The Modern Republican Dilemma

Potential GOP presidential nominee Ted Cruz tells us much about the changing party, according to a new New Yorker profile. NPR's Scott Simon speaks to Jeffrey Toobin, the author of that article.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

One of the themes of this year's midterm election has been the Republican establishment versus the Tea Party. And no one better represents the idea of the Tea Party than Ted Cruz, the Republican, U.S. senator from Texas, probably best known for almost single-handedly shutting down the federal government last year by delivering the fourth-longest speech in U.S. Senate history on the Senate floor.

Jeffrey Toobin has a lengthy profile of Senator Cruz in this week's New Yorker. And he joins me now in our studios. Jeffrey, thanks for coming in.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Hi, Don.

GONYEA: So just a couple of years ago, Ted Cruz was practically unknown. That's easy to forget, given his high profile these days.

TOOBIN: You know, Barack Obama was a slow ascent compared to the speedy ascent of Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz is the 94th most senior senator in the United States Senate, yet he is a major national figure, a very likely candidate for president and, as far as I'm concerned, a very serious one.

GONYEA: You suggest in the article that Ted Cruz's ascendancy, quote, "reflects the dilemma of the modern Republican Party." Explain.

TOOBIN: The more right-wing he is, the more doctrinaire conservative he is, mostly in his celebrated moment of helping to shut down the government, the more popular he is with the base of the Republican Party. But capturing the right of the Republican Party is a recipe for alienating the kind of people you need to win a general election. So the dilemma is, does helping get the nomination help you lose the general election?

GONYEA: In the piece, you quote Arizona Senator John McCain as saying, about that speech that shut down the government, quote, "it was not a productive enterprise. We needed 67 votes in the Senate to stop Obamacare. We didn't have it. It was a fool's errand. And it hurt the Republican Party, and it hurt my state. I think Ted has learned his lesson."

TOOBIN: Not true. Not true. John McCain wishes Ted Cruz learned his lesson. That is not what Ted Cruz thinks is the lesson of the shutdown. And he has an entire version of recent American history that suggests that the more the Republican Party tries to be moderate, the more it loses.

GONYEA: So this is a lengthy profile you have written. So let's flash back. A lot of people may not know that Senator Cruz, in his early life, that he went to Princeton, then went to Harvard Law School. He studied under the high-profile legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, who developed a very high opinion of him.

TOOBIN: Everyone developed a high opinion of Ted Cruz. Ted's Princeton roommate said, everything I've heard from Senator Cruz, I heard from Ted Cruz when he was 17 years old. He hasn't changed a bit.

GONYEA: So let's fast-forward. He's 32 years old, still pretty young. He is appointed Texas Solicitor General. And in that job, he argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in just over six years.

TOOBIN: And let's pause and say, how many people in America have argued nine cases before the Supreme Court, much less in their mid-thirties? This is an illustration of what an accomplished and serious lawyer Ted Cruz is. And frankly, I've seen a lot of Supreme Court arguments. These were brilliant arguments by Cruz. And he won five of the cases - lost four. But he won the big ones.

GONYEA: So now comes all of the talk of a 2016 presidential run. One Democratic senator told you, quote, "We all hope he runs. He's their Mondale." Mondale, of course, was swamped in 1984, when he ran against Ronald Reagan - carried one state. After spending time with Cruz, talking to him, what's your sense of that?

TOOBIN: My sense is he is a very serious candidate for the Republican nomination. I find it hard to believe that he could win a general election against Hillary Clinton or, frankly, anyone else. I think if you look at his views, you know, whether it's same-sex marriage, whether it's man-made climate change - these are views that are outside the political mainstream at the moment. And he is doubling down on all of them.

That's how he approaches politics. He is not a compromiser. And I think he would have a tough time in a general election.

GONYEA: Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker magazine. Thanks for coming in.

TOOBIN: Thanks, Don.

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