Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ’92 made national headlines in 2015 when he launched his campaign for President. He finished second in the Republican presidential primary and remains an active and influential member of the U.S. Senate. He sat down with The Daily Princetonian to talk about his time at the University, his experience running for President, his current political outlook, and his advice for college students.
The Daily Princetonian: What attracted you to Princeton, and how would you describe your experience here?
Sen. Ted Cruz: I grew up in Houston, went to a small high school, Second Baptist High School, which had a graduating class of 43. At the time, nobody from school had ever gone to an Ivy League college. My mom was the first in her family ever to go to college, and my father had come from Cuba penniless to America to go to the University of Texas. When I was a junior in high school, I was looking at colleges, and my parents and I toured a number of colleges up and down the East Coast. We visited several universities, and I fell in love with Princeton. At each of the colleges, I would go off on my own, away from my parents; just go visit some students and ask them, “What’s it like going to school here? What do you like about it? What do you not like about it? What’s the experience like?” Princetonians love our alma mater. There is a passion among Princetonians that is unique. Senior year in high school, I applied to Princeton early and got in early, so I made my decision on the front end. I had a wonderful experience the four years I was at Princeton.
DP: How did you become involved with the debate team? Is it something you knew you wanted to do coming in?
TC: I had always been interested in debate. My high school in Houston was very small, and so it didn’t have a debate team, and so I had never done debate prior to coming to Princeton. I knew that the debate team was very special to Princeton, and it was something I was quite interested in, so freshman year I went to Whig-Clio and signed up and joined, dived in headfirst. I spent virtually every weekend the next four years at debate tournaments up and down the East Coast. I made a number of close friends on the debate team, but I learned life skills that have proven invaluable. Debate prompts you to understand an issue, but critically, understand those who disagree with you on an issue. So many people in today’s public discourse tend to vilify those who disagree with them as either stupid or evil. In reality, most people are neither, and what debate taught you to do, is how a person with good morals or good intentions could look at the issue that you cared most passionately about, and come to a conclusion 180 degrees the opposite. I believe understanding why others see an issue differently is the key to being able to persuade and move people on the substance and on the issues. Debate taught that wonderfully. It was also a terrific community of students who were smart, passionate, and funny, and cared about the world. Between debate and student government ... those two consumed the vast majority of my time at Princeton.
DP: You wrote your senior thesis on the separation of powers, so how did you come up with that idea? Have your views on that evolved over the years?
TC: I wrote my senior thesis under Robbie George, who has been an incredible friend, mentor, and teacher. The focus of the thesis was the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution, and separation of powers and the limitations of the powers of the federal government in the Bill of Rights, which were designed to protect our fundamental liberties. The thesis was part of a long journey studying the Constitution that had really begun early in high school, when I got involved in a nonprofit in Houston called the Free Enterprise Institute that worked with high school students to study the Constitution, to read the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers, and to memorize a short mnemonic version of the Constitution. I had been part of a student group that toured Texas speaking about the Constitution. That was a passion early on; it was a passion fueled in a significant part by my own family story. My father, as a teenager, had been imprisoned and tortured in Cuba, and he had seen oppression firsthand, and when he fled to America in 1957, he had $100 in his underwear and he couldn’t speak English. He came here seeking freedom, and that passion for freedom that was awakened by hearing the stories of my father fighting for his own liberty joined with an intellectual fascination with the Constitution and Bill of Rights, serving, as Thomas Jefferson put, “chains that bind the mischief of government,” and so my thesis was a natural outgrowth of that lifelong passion and study. As with any senior thesis, it reflected the thinking of a 21-year-old student, not yet fully mature, but I think the directions in my thesis have certainly continued to be reflected in the 25 years since then, where much of my professional career has been devoted to defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and protecting the fundamental liberties that we enjoy as Americans.
DP: Could you talk about your experience serving as one of then-Gov. George W. Bush’s lawyers during the 2000 Florida recount? How did it affect your perception of government and the court, and your future career in politics?
TC: I spent a year and a half working on the George W. Bush presidential campaign in 1999 and 2000, and I was domestic policy adviser, focusing on legal and constitutional issues primarily. In November of 2000, when the election occurred, suddenly the entire country was thrust into the midst of a recount. An unprecedented occurrence. I was sent down to Florida, to Tallahassee, to be part of the team that was helping lead the recount effort. As a young lawyer, just 29 years old at the time, it was an extraordinary opportunity to work with some of the most talented and experienced constitutional litigators in the country. We worked night and day. I recall within a few days of getting there, we had a war room with whiteboards on the walls, and seven different litigation teams ongoing simultaneously, any one of which had the potential to overturn the result of the presidential election. George W. Bush had won the election on election day, but there was still litigation pending to try to reverse that result. For those of us that were part of the recount team, we felt strongly that we were fighting to protect our democratic system. Then indeed, four times the votes were counted in Florida, and Bush prevailed each of those four times. And yet, the litigation had the potential to go on and on and on until the courts overturned the will of the electorate. I had been the only practicing litigator who was on the full-time campaign team, and indeed I practiced constitutional litigation, and I had begun my career as a law clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist on the Supreme Court. So, Secretary Jim Baker [’52], who was leading the recount team for George W. Bush, asked me to serve on each of the different seven litigation teams, and to focus on trying to ensure consistency and uniformity in the legal arguments we were making in multiple forums simultaneously. It was a wonderful experience, it was a humbling experience, to see giants at their craft fighting to defend their clients. I felt privileged to be a part of that team.
DP: Fast-forwarding 16 years, you launched your campaign for President of the United States. Why did you feel that this was a good time for you to launch a campaign for President, what motivated you to do it, and what lessons did you learn during the campaign?
TC: More than anything, [my wife] Heidi and I are profoundly grateful for having had the opportunity to run the presidential campaign. The most incredible aspect of the campaign was the grassroots army that rose up — men and women across the country, who put in enormous time, and energy, sweat, and passion, to change the direction of our country. When the campaign started, there were 17 Republicans in the field, it was a crowded field, and they had widely acknowledged to be one of the strongest fields ever assembled. The grassroots team that arose around our campaign was phenomenal to behold. We had over 326,000 volunteers nationwide who were knocking on doors, making phone calls, who were reaching out on email and social media and urging their fellow citizens to support the campaign. Over the course of the campaign, we had raised over $92 million in hard money, which is the most money ever raised by a Republican presidential candidate in history. That came from over 1.8 million contributions, averaging about 51 bucks a piece. That experience, traveling all across the country with Heidi, and with our two daughters, Caroline and Catherine, seeing the passion and energy of young people, of small business owners, of veterans, of working men and women, who were frustrated with the direction this country was headed, who wanted to see economic growth come back, who wanted to lift the burdens of Washington on small businesses and job creators, to see greater opportunity for their kids and grandkids, to see their fundamental rights protected, that grassroots movement, was overwhelming, and it was incredibly humbling to be a part of that.
DP: This may be a bit premature, but have you ever considered throwing your hat into the ring in 2024?
TC: You know, life is long. We came very, very close to winning the campaign. At the end of the day, we received nearly 8 million votes, we won 12 states and nearly 600 delegates. That is a testament to grassroots activists across the country, who have put enormous time and energy into fighting to defend our freedoms. That is a fight to which I am committed for the rest of my life. It has been my passion since I was a child, to defend freedom and the Constitution, the fundamental pillars that have made our nation great. I am committed to continuing that fight in whatever capacity I can. Right now I am serving the United States Senate, and it is a tremendous privilege to represent 28 million Texans in the Senate, to fight for the men and women of Texas each and every single day, to fight for those same principles that I was fighting for in the presidential campaign. And I intend to continue to do everything I can to advance the principles of freedom and the Constitution in the years ahead.
DP: Could you talk about your time in the Senate, especially now that Republicans control both houses of Congress and the Presidency? What is on the front burner in terms of legislation, and how likely will these priorities be implemented?
TC: We have right now a unique and historic opportunity. It is very rare that Republicans are given control of the White House, of every executive agency, and of both houses of Congress. Now, I believe, we have to deliver. It is time to produce results. In 2017, I think there are four major priorities for Congress and for the new administration. Number one: repealing Obamacare. We have to honor our promise to the American people. Obamacare isn’t working, it’s hurting millions of people, and repealing Obamacare, the most important objective is we have to lower health insurance premiums. Premiums have skyrocketed under Obamacare. The test for success for the new majorities in Congress will be if, when we repeal Obamacare, premiums go down, and there are more choices, more competition, more options, so that healthcare is more affordable for families who are struggling, then we will have succeeded. That’s the first priority. The second priority is fundamental tax reform. Dramatically simplifying the tax code. Ideally, I’d like to see a simple flat tax, where we abolish the IRS. The third major priority is regulatory reform, reducing the burdens of Washington on small businesses and job creators. And the fourth major priority is the Supreme Court, ensuring we have principled constitutionalists on the court, who will protect free speech and religious liberty and the Second Amendment. If Republicans deliver on these four priorities — Obamacare, tax reform, reg reform, and the Supreme Court — then 2017 will be an epic, blockbuster year. We are poised to be the most productive Congress in decades. On the other hand, if we fail to deliver, then 2017 will be a heartbreaking, missed opportunity. And so I am spending every minute, day and night, working to bring Republicans together to deliver on what we promised, to accomplish these central priorities.
DP: You’re a prolific tweeter. Do you have any advice for the current President? In general, if you could give the President one piece of advice, what would it be?
TC: Well, the consistent advice that I have given the President is, let’s work together to deliver on what we promised. The week after the election in November, I got on a plane and flew to New York, and went to Trump Tower, and I said, “Mr. President, we have been given a historic opportunity. I want to do everything I can to help lead the fight to deliver on the promises we made.” And that is very much the role that I intend to play. The last five months have obviously been unprecedented. What I am endeavoring to do is ignore the political circus. Ignore the voice hyperventilating on cable news, and instead focus on substance, focus on delivering results. If we can have major tax reform, major regulatory reform, repeal Obamacare, and put a strong constitutionalist on the court, the impact will be long-lasting. Tax reform and reg reform together are the two most potent levers government has to facilitate economic growth. And we can bring the American economy back, we can unleash the American free enterprise system, and get back to 3, 4, 5 percent GDP growth. That means millions of new jobs, that means wages rising, that means people come out of college, new Princetonians graduating having two, three, four, five job offers. That is my number one priority: jobs and economic growth. The reason is simple, that’s the number one priority of Texans, of the 28 million Texans I represent all across our great state. Doesn’t matter where you are, you can be in East Texas or West Texas; you can be in the panhandle or down in the Rio Grande Valley. Consistently, the top priority of Texans is jobs and economic growth, and if we deliver on that, if we deliver real results, that, I believe is what our constituents expect us to do.
DP: Shifting back to Princeton, what advice would you give to conservative students who are afraid to express their views? What advice would you give to students who are not conservative or are undecided, and how would you convince them to consider conservative ideas or open the discussion?
TC: Listen, there’s no doubt that the university culture, at Princeton and across the country, is overwhelmingly liberal. I will say that is has saddened me in recent years to see more and more universities enforcing a mandated political correctness, trying to silence the views that differ from the prevailing orthodoxy. One of the reasons I went to Princeton is that, even though the faculty and student body leaned heavily to the left, there was a sizable contingent of conservatives at Princeton. It was an institution that respected free speech and the free exchange of ideas. I very much hope that tradition and that commitment remain alive and vibrant at Princeton today. When I was an undergraduate, I was chairman of the Cliosophic Party, the conservative party of Whig-Clio. My counterpart, the speaker of the Whig Party, the liberal party, was and is today a very good friend of mine. We would argue vigorously in the public forum on issues of the day, and then we’d go out and grab a beer together. I’d call him a communist and he’d call me a fascist and we would order another round. That exchange is critical to a functioning democracy. For those on the left, I would encourage you to welcome and even celebrate differing views. If your ideas are right, you don’t need to silence anyone who would dare disagree. For those on the right, I would encourage you to try even harder to understand those who disagree. One thing worth remembering: For most of us, our views in life change as we travel this life’s journey. Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re 20 and not a liberal, you have no heart. And if you’re 40 and not a conservative, you have no brain.” I believe we will reach the best results, the policies that work, that improve the human condition, that expand opportunity when we have a free and robust debate and a clash of ideas. Just like John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” describes ideas coming together, the marketplace of ideas. Truth will prevail, and if we work together, that’s how we arrive upon solutions that are right and true, and that actually work in the real world.
DP: What are you most looking forward to about Reunions? Any final thoughts on your Princeton experience?
TC: I’m certainly looking forward to getting a garish orange and black sport coat, which my wife and daughters will be thoroughly puzzled by why everyone is wearing shades that don’t occur in nature. But since they are beer jackets and well-suited to having beer spilled on them, it will be fun to revel and celebrate. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and being back on the campus. One of the things I’m looking forward to is, I’m going to take some time to sit down with current members of Whig-Clio, graduating seniors. I reached out and offered to Whig-Clio that we could have just a sit-down, an informal chance to sit down and just talk about whatever issues they want to talk about. I loved my time at Princeton and learned a great deal, and I’m grateful for the university, for the experiences. When I arrived on campus, it was a world I knew nothing about. No one in my family had ever gone to an Ivy League school. It was daunting; it was intimidating. And yet, it opened up a world of opportunities, that I couldn’t have imagined. One thing I will say to undergrads, a message I hope to convey to as many as possible, which is: Don’t give up on your passion of saving the world. One of the great things about being young is that you’re filled with vibrancy and zealotry. It is easy to let those passions fade as you grow older, as you focus on getting a job, and earning a living, and paying the mortgage. All of those are important, you need to provide to your family. The advice I would give young people is: Find your passion, find what makes your blood flow. What do you think about when you wake up in the morning? What do you think about when you’re drifting off to sleep at night? Devote your life to living your passion. If you do what you most care about, you will, number one, be much, much better at it, and, number two, you’ll be much happier. The only lasting difference any of us make is the difference we make in the world we live in, in the lives of others. How do we make the lives of others better? Each of us will have different callings. Some may have a calling to politics, others in business, others in the arts, others in education, others in journalism. There are a host of callings. But the legacy you will leave will consist exclusively of how did you impact the lives of others. Every graduating senior and all young Princetonians ... should keep your passion and live your passion.