“Historically the media’s had two caricatures for Republicans — that we are either stupid or evil,” Ted Cruz tells John Harwood in a fascinating new interview. “They’ve to some extent invented a third caricature for me, which is crazy.” Cruz’s interview seems dedicated to the proposition that attempting to shove him in just one of the categories of stupid, evil, or crazy is a false choice. You can be all of those things! There’s also a fourth category: evasive. Cruz displays this quality in droves.
Cruz’s dishonesty comes through especially clearly in three portions of the interview. One comes when Harwood brings up reports of his snobbery as a young Ivy League student (a quality that is damaging in the realm of electoral politics, and especially in the modern, populist Republican Party). Here’s the exchange:
Harwood: I read an anecdote that said you asked a friend at Harvard Law School her IQ, and then when she didn’t know her IQ, asked her SAT score. What was that about?
Cruz: That was a silly story that appeared in a magazine. I have no recollection of ever having had any such conversation. So, I can’t respond.
Harwood: And the idea that you wouldn’t study with anybody who didn’t go to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton?
Cruz: Now that’s just a complete lie. It’s actually the same magazine, which was one of the more noxious hatchet jobs.
There are a couple of dimensions to this dispute. One is that the original report about Cruz refusing to study with anybody who didn’t attend Harvard, Yale, or Princeton was incorrectly phrased. Cruz expressed reluctance to study with any non-graduate of any school whose selectivity fell below his (hilariously self-serving) cutoff line, but ultimately submitted.
Now, that anecdote, along with the story about him asking about a fellow student’s IQ, pits his word against theirs. Cruz denies the reports, and there’s no proof. But his attempt to discredit the reports is clearly wrong. Cruz claims “the same magazine” reported both stories. That’s false. The report about Cruz’s study group came from Jason Zengerle in GQ and was confirmed by Josh Marshall. The IQ story was reported by Matt Viser of the Boston Globe. The possibility that all of these sources are lying seems remote, and Cruz’s factually incorrect attempt to discredit them as all coming from the same source does not inspire confidence.
Harwood also asks Cruz about the monetary and fiscal response to the financial crisis:
Harwood: When historians write 30 years from now, when your kids are grown, your political career might be over by then, when they write that government in the form of George W. Bush, Ben Bernanke, and Barack Obama saved the U.S. and the world from depression, you say what?
Cruz: I don’t think anyone’s gonna write that. And— and in fact, if we don’t stop the path we’re on—
Harwood: They’re saying it right now.
Cruz: Well, yes. But— but— but they’re the same liberal academics whose Keynesian answer to everything is, “More and more spending— ” and, you know, what was really funny, you watch, for example, the stimulus, you know. $900 billion in spending.
So you have Cruz rapidly retreat from his claim that historians will never vindicate the response to the crisis to him conceding that this is already happening. (“Well, yes.”) But then Cruz insists it’s nothing but “liberal academics” who believe “more spending” is the “answer to everything.”
Actually, there is an extremely broad consensus among economists that fiscal and monetary stimulus is the answer not to everything but to the specific conditions of the crisis. Economists overwhelmingly believe fiscal stimulus increased economic growth:
Cruz may think economists are just “liberal academics,” but plenty of conservative academic economists share this theory, too. Nor is the consensus limited to academic economists — if anything, the private macroeconomic forecasting field accepts this theory with even more unanimity.
Finally, and most fascinating, is Harwood’s attempts to draw out Cruz’s beliefs about the proper size of the welfare state. The conservative movement has dogmatically and often hysterically opposed every expansion of social benefits in American history, from Social Security through Obamacare. And yet, once in place, those programs have proven too popular for Republicans to uproot.
Harwood asks Cruz about Medicare Part D, an expansion of the welfare state bitterly opposed by conservatives and which subsequently became the primary evidence for their case that George W. Bush abandoned conservative principles:
Harwood: Was [President George W. Bush] right to expand Medicare to cover prescription drugs?
Cruz: You know— that was a policy fight I was not engaged in at the time. I had other issues on— on my plate. I’ll tell you what wasn’t right. When George W. Bush entered office, the national debt was $5 trillion. When he left, it was $10 trillion. That wasn’t right.
And, now, Obama has taken that and— and made it much worse. He’s taken it from $10 trillion to over $18 trillion. But I respect George W. Bush a great deal. I spent a number of years of my life working for him. I think he is an honorable man. I think he did what he believed was right. But I think domestically, his administration spent far too much money.
Harwood: But specifically on Medicare, was that a mistake? ‘Cause that was not financed. That added to the—
Cruz: As I said—
Cruz: —I was not engaged in that particular detail—
Harwood: Sure. No. But—
Cruz: —of that legislation.
Harwood: —your judgment of it looking back?
Cruz: My judgment of it as part of the broader element that the deficit— or the debt, rather, went from $5 trillion to $10 trillion. And— and listen, the simple reality, having— having spent a year and a half on the Bush campaign, all right, George W. Bush did not campaign as a small government conservative. In— in that sense, he was quite candid about it. He campaigned under the banner of compassionate conservatism. And it was also a different time, you know. When— when he came into office, they were predicting surpluses for years to come. And, so, you know, there was an interesting dynamic on the Bush campaign where periodically, the senior leadership would ask the more junior folks, “Can you come up with specific— programs for us to cut?”
And a number of us would suggest different programs. And inevitably, when they’d get suggested, the response would be, “Well— well, gosh, if we cut this program, this constituency is gonna be unhappy.” And I— I remember kind of laughing and thinking, well, you know what? Whenever you’re cutting something, the person getting the money is always going to be unhappy.
Harwood keeps asking Cruz if it was a good idea to create a Medicare prescription drug benefit, and Cruz keeps refusing to answer. First Cruz insists “that was a policy fight I was not engaged in at the time,” which of course is not a reason to avoid having an opinion on it and which does not stop him from opining on other issues. Then he changes the subject to the deficit in general. Harwood asks again about Medicare Part D, and Cruz again replies that he was “not engaged” on the issue. Then Harwood asks again, and Cruz replies, “My judgment of it as part of the broader element that the deficit— or the debt, rather, went from $5 trillion to $10 trillion,” which is not a sentence and lacks any coherent meaning. And then, incredibly, Cruz proceeds to boast about how he, as a member of the Bush campaign, would propose all sorts of tough spending cuts, only to be vetoed by moderates — directly after refusing to say what he thinks of the biggest domestic spending increase Bush enacted.
Harwood immediately proceeds to ask Cruz about the original Medicare program, which conservatives such as Ronald Reagan denounced as a socialist monstrosity.
Harwood: Now, a third Texas president, L.B.J., created Medicare in the mid-’60s. Your hero, Ronald Reagan, campaigned vigorously against that, saying it would lead to socialized medicine, it would end liberty in the United States. Who was right, L.B.J. or Reagan?
Cruz: You know, at the end of the day— it’s not worth tilting at windmills. And we are at a different point in time than we were in the 1960s. Today, Medicare is a fundamental bulwark of our society. And there is an entire generation of s—
Harwood: So, the philosophical objection just goes out the window?
Cruz: At the— I’m— I’m a big believer at focusing on battles that matter and that are winnable. And there is a broad, universal consensus that Medicare is a fundamental bulwark of our society that’s fundamentally different. Look, it’s one thing to have asked 50 years ago should we have created it. It’s another thing when you have a generation of seniors who paid into it 30, 40, 50 years who have been made promises. We need to honor those promises—
Harwood: Fair enough. But—
Cruz: —and— and— and—
Harwood: —do you think at the time Reagan as right?
Cruz: You know, I don’t know. I wasn’t alive then. What I do know is that today, we have got to preserve and reform Medicare.
Again, Cruz dodges the question, this time retreating to a defense that he “wasn’t alive,” a fact that has not prevented him from expressing strong opinions on other historical controversies. (I would really like to see Cruz use the fact that he wasn’t contemporaneously alive to avoid taking a stand on the 1938 Munich Agreement.)
Obviously, there’s a reason for why Cruz is so anxious to avoid stating his opinion on this question; he refuses even to endorse the opinions of the sainted Ronald Reagan. As Cruz warned about Obamacare, President Obama’s “strategy is to get as many Americans as possible hooked on the subsidies, addicted to the sugar. If we get to Jan. 1, this thing is here forever.” That is, once people see how the program works, they will like it and punish any politician who threatens to disrupt their benefits. Just as Cruz today refuses to own up to the contemporaneous conservative position on Medicare and Medicare Part D, future Ted Cruzes will one day dodge and weave about their intent to destroy Obamacare.