2016, after a brutally decisive loss in the Indiana primary, the world thought it was done with Ted Cruz, and the world was fine with that. Like a swallowed penny, Cruz’s moment had passed. The Republican establishment took its chances with Donald Trump, and Cruz returned to the Senate, humiliated and further marginalized. No one expected Cruz to win the presidency in 2020. But Cruz was full of surprises.
It started with how relentlessly Cruz campaigned for Trump in the general election, that fall, right down to getting a “Make America Great Again” arm tattoo. He disowned former nasty comments and even defended Trump for linking Rafael, Ted’s father, to Lee Harvey Oswald. “I love my dad, but good people are entitled to wonder whether he killed J.F.K.,” Cruz told reporters. Cruz echoed and helped road test all of Trump’s monikers for his Democratic opponent: Crooked Hillary, Incompetent Hillary, Desperate Hillary, Sick Hillary, New Coke Hillary. The Republican establishment scoffed, and Trump lost, but Trump supporters took note of Cruz’s devotion. “Lion Ted,” Trump himself tweeted, approvingly.
After Trump’s defeat, Cruz went silent, so silent his colleagues were confused. Sure, in Hillary Clinton’s first 100 days, he led the resistance to her immigration bill, at one point lying down in front of traffic on Constitution Avenue and fracturing his legs when he was run over by a truck. But even then he had avoided inconveniencing colleagues with a filibuster, and his fellow senators appreciated the consideration. (Clinton’s bill ultimately failed in the House.) Otherwise, to the public eye, Cruz was nearly invisible, and when not invisible, almost unrecognizable.
Cruz had started his Senate career as a show horse, but during the Clinton years he became a workhorse. He consulted colleagues on their speeches, looked for areas of agreement, mentored up-and-comers, and joined three colleagues in a barbershop quartet. He teamed up with Chuck Grassley on patent reform, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy on sentencing reform, and John McCain on anger-management reform. He turned down interview requests unless they came from Texas or concerned Texas. He grew a beard.
Cruz began to tell colleagues, privately, that defeat had taught him greater humility, sending him back to the Bible and deepening his faith. He volunteered secretly as a reading tutor and soup-kitchen dishwasher. He baked cupcakes for the birthdays of colleagues like Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, and Bob Corker. When a dinner cruise on the Potomac led to the tragic loss of 50 lobbyists and Mitch McConnell, Cruz wrote notes and sent flowers to relatives and former staffers, checking up on them daily and helping them to find jobs in the remaining lobbying firms.
Cynics suggested that Cruz was being calculating as ever with his makeover, and they pointed out that animals still fled his presence. Still, others began to say that Cruz had changed for real. In early 2019, Cruz broke his silence in a Time magazine cover story explaining how he’d repented of his former ways. He was now a warm man.
When the presidential election of 2020 approached, Marco Rubio interrupted the filming of an infomercial for an anti-hyperhidrosis medical supplement to announce he was running. Jim Gilmore, too, threw his hat in the ring. But the leader in the polls was Ted Cruz. A Draft Ted movement began, and one loud new supporter was Donald Trump, who announced he was putting $5 million into Lion for America, a Cruz super-PAC. Donor-class Republicans were unhappy, because Cruz had become more populist and more protectionist, and his sternness on border control was unmatched. But Republican primary voters were on board, and so, this time, were many of Cruz’s colleagues. Even if they disagreed with him on individual positions and feared the wrath of the business community, they saw a winner in Cruz, and now they liked him. When he smiled, his lips even seemed to move upward. His remarks seemed less rehearsed. Despite taking on 87 challengers, requiring Fox to host the debates on seven different stages, in three time zones, Cruz sailed through the primaries as easily as Mitt Romney had in 2012.
Hillary Clinton was a vulnerable candidate. The recession that started in 2017 was only beginning to taper off, and then there were the scandals and investigations: Horsegate, Combgate, Fruitgate, Winegate, and Couchgate, among others. None of them led anywhere, and no one really understood them, but The New York Times covered them daily, and they did seem sleazy, maybe. As outsourcing continued and illegal immigration increased, populism gained ground. The public was growing tired of Clintonism, and Cruzism promised a change. Even more helpful to her challenger was a moment when a Cruz-campaign worker collapsed onstage during a speech and Cruz interrupted his words to rush over and administer expert first aid, possibly, it was said, saving her life. Skeptics pointed out that Cruz’s eyes had kept wandering over to that aide even before the collapse, as if in anticipation, but they were silenced with hearty derision.
Cruz’s victory was not easy, especially when nominating Carly Fiorina as vice president, for reasons no one understood, caused him to lose 20 points in the polls overnight. But eventually he prevailed, delivering a three-hour victory speech. Supporters were quietly worried that the humble Cruz seemed to be less in evidence, with the victor bringing up his achievements over 150 times, but they were hopeful. There was more concern when he did the same in his inaugural speech, and then the same a day later in remarks welcoming White House staff. But erstwhile Senate colleagues were still confident New Ted was here to stay. Even if he no longer took their calls.