Nearly two weeks ago, just prior to his appearance at Rep. Steve King (R-IA)'s Iowa Freedom Summit, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz carved out some time to meet with leading liberty activists from around Iowa. The low-key meeting, held in Des Moines, was many activists' first time to meet the libertarian-leaning Tea Party firebrand. It was also Cruz's first time fielding questions from a crowd comprised almost exclusively of members of the thriving Iowa Liberty Movement. Cruz opened with high praise for former Rep. Ron Paul's rapidly-maturing political army. "The power, the energy of the Liberty Movement is inspirational," said Cruz. "I think it is starting to change the almost inevitable currents of Washington." He went on to discuss his appreciation for libertarian thinkers like Hayek, Bastiat, and von Mises, keying on areas of agreement with his audience.
Cruz, who recently challenged Republicans to "lighten up a little", also threw in some of his characteristically disarming humor. Admitting himself to be a "geek" while discussing his high school pursuits, the 44-year-old Senator related an instance in which he recently dropped a Star Trek reference to his younger policy staff in Washington. As the story goes, the Senator sat at a desk, picked up a computer mouse inquisitively, and proceeded to speak into the mouse with his best Scottish brogue, "Computer! Computer!" as though expecting the computer to respond to his voice. When his staff greeted him with bewildered stares, Cruz had to explain that he had been imitating the Enterprise's affable engineer, Scotty, in a comedic scene from Star Trek IV. "It made me feel both old, and really geeky," Cruz confessed, spurring laughter throughout the room.
The questions started rolling, and Cruz fielded broad queries about executive overreach, shutting down government agencies, and changing the culture of Washington. But after the first couple questions, the Senator paused and threw down the gauntlet. "Let me make a brief request, which is just in general: no softballs," he challenged, "Ask the hard questions. I suspect not everyone here is right now inclined to support me, so ask the hardest questions you have and let's have a conversation." Emphasizing the importance of forthrightness, he added a promise on his end. "I'm not gonna blow smoke at you. Where there are areas we agree I'll tell you, where there (are areas) where we disagree I'll tell you… And I hope you will come to conclude that where we are on the same page you can trust me to say it."
Though several faces in the room full of notoriously-combative libertarians registered surprise, they certainly took up the challenge.
The next hour saw a blitz of questions about a wide range of issues, from Cruz's own eligibility for the Presidency (a challenge Cruz insisted had no legal or constitutional merit), to states' rights and marijuana legalization, to the Patriot Act and the NSA's domestic spying scandal. There was even a question regarding Cruz's rumored relationship to the Council on Foreign Relations – a group generally despised by the Liberty Movement.
Though the Senator managed to navigate two hours of pointed questions without much disagreement, several activists did take issue with what they saw as an ambiguous answer regarding his criticism of the Obama administration for failing to enforce federal drug laws, as well as his assertion that the greatest threat to US national security was a nuclear Iran. "Greater than the national debt?" Quizzed one activist. "Yes," Cruz responded, "And I am very concerned about the national debt, but the national debt is not going to drop nuclear weapons on us."
Throughout his responses, Cruz maintained a theme of action over talk. "All of us are cynical on politics and distrust politicians. And you know what? I agree with you – Do not trust any one of us," said Cruz. "Every one of us should ask any politician, 'you say you believe these principles? Show me. When have you stood up and fought for them?' Don't even ask people what they believe – they can pander. Just ask a real simple question: 'what have you done on this issue?'"
Inevitably, the conversation turned to 2016 and the prospects of the dueling candidacies of Cruz and fellow "Whacko Bird" Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) of Kentucky. Likening the Republican Primary to the NCAA basketball tournament, Cruz admitted that Rand was strong in the libertarian "bracket", but made it clear that should he run, he would fight for the liberty vote as well. "I intend to vigorously contest (for support from the Liberty Movement), and I think it's entirely consistent to fight for liberty… and to fight for conservative principles as well," said Cruz. He also noted that he was the only candidate in the country in 2012 to be endorsed by both Ron Paul and Rick Santorum in his Texas Senate race. "Now, those are two worlds that are not normally arm-in-arm," Cruz explained in an understatement that drew laughter from the room.
He highlighted his support for the USA Freedom Act, legislation that Paul did not support alongside Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) (the third Senator in the Tea Party Triumvirate). Paul was the deciding vote against the bill, which Cruz described as the single best opportunity to protect civil liberties. "Had Rand voted yes," he added, "we could have taken it up."
He also managed to indirectly implicate Rand for failing to stand with him and Lee against moderate party leadership and then-minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) during the debt ceiling fight – reminding the room of a relationship that has consistently engendered distrust for Rand within the Liberty Movement.
Sen. Cruz also took time to tout his co-sponsorship of the Smarter Sentencing Act and Audit the Fed – two touchstone issues within the libertarian wing of the GOP. He also tapped into the non-interventionist tendencies of the Liberty Movement during a discussion of foreign policy, holding up an amendment that he successfully added to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which required the Defense Department to conduct a review of overseas bases in an attempt to "reduce our overseas footprint".
Cruz concluded by painting himself as the most consistently principled candidate in a soon-to-be-crowded Republican primary, and challenging his hearers to look beyond rhetoric and judge the records of those who would ask for their support. "Y'all are looking for people who are willing to stand up to the Washington corruption, who are looking to stand up to both parties, what I would suggest is look to the field and ask 'who's actually doing that?' Look at the dozen biggest fights of the last two years…and ask 'who has stood up to fight on those, and who has been willing to stand up against the establishment of both parties?'"
After the meeting ended, Cruz – already running late for his next engagement – stuck around to shake hands and take pictures with the activists, even fielding a few pop-quiz-style yes or no questions as his staff worked to get him to the car.
While noncommittal in terms of support, several of the activists in the room said that they were impressed with Cruz – particularly with his willingness to meet and address issues relating to the Liberty Movement in a candid Q and A format.
Attendee Gabe Lanz of Des Moines said he came away with a better feeling toward Cruz overall. "He was frank, didn't run from the tough or uncomfortable questions, and gave further insight to his past that displays a record of championing and fighting to preserve conservative principles," said Lanz.
Dr. John Bowery, Page County GOP chair and longtime Republican activist, says that Cruz carried himself well and answered questions frankly, and will be keeping an eye on Cruz's impending candidacy. "A candidate doesn't have to agree with me on every point to win my support, but he does need to show that he can learn and listen as well as communicate. I am looking forward to see if Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) passes that test."
Others look forward to hearing Cruz elaborate further on issues of concern – most notably states' rights and US-Iranian foreign policy. But one thing is certain – Cruz is serious about coming after the liberty vote, and some members of the Liberty Movement are willing to hear him out.
CRUZ ON THE ISSUES
On executive overreach: “One of the most troubling aspects of Washington is the explosion of the federal regulatory state. It’s a fourth branch of government with unelected bureaucrats that frankly are accountable to no one, and they view elected officials like a mild annoyance that will come and go… One of the things we have never seen a president do, is use the full, Article II authority of the presidency to go directly after the regulatory and administrative state, to start dismantling this regulatory morass.”
On shrinking government: Would shut down the Department of Commerce and the Department of Education, as well as the IRS. Wants to implement a flat tax so simple that Americans can file their taxes on a postcard, which would lay the groundwork for a transition to a Fair Tax system.
On how to change the culture of Washington: “At its core, what I have been trying to do in the Senate is bring a ‘disruptive app’ to Washington to change the means of decision-making, and to move the power out of Washington, to the American people – to the grassroots,” said Cruz. “What we have to do is to make it politically more risky to do the wrong thing, than it is to do the right thing – change the calculus. And that’s a lesson the Liberty Movement understands.”
On the Patriot Act and domestic spying: “I would not vote for a straight-up reauthorization of the Patriot Act.” Supported USA Freedom Act that would have ended bulk data collection by the US government.
On the military-industrial complex: “You want to talk about people with effective lobbies, that’s right at the top of the list. A weapons system will be built in ten different states because it is members of Congress trying to bring home the bacon. When it comes to defense spending, I think the focus should be on ‘what are the national security needs of the country?’ not, ‘What brings jobs to my particular district?’
On gun rights: Referenced his now-famous exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) (D-CA) on the 2nd Amendment. Opposes any effort to scale back 2nd Amendment rights.
On foreign policy and ISIS: “I am a constitutionalist. I have been very outspoken that before military conflict, Congress needs to authorize it,” said Cruz. “We need to have a congressional debate about authorization. What the President is doing is illegal and unconstitutional.”
On pain-capable right to life legislation: “I strongly support pain-capable legislation. As a matter of principle, we should not have exceptions. But I will also take incremental gains.”
On state drug laws and his prior criticism of the Obama Administration for failing to enforce marijuana laws in states that have legalized pot: “What I was focusing on with respect to marijuana prosecution was not the Colorado and Washington state piece, but rather, Eric Holder has unilaterally instructed US attorneys not to prosecute for certain smaller amounts of marijuana possession,” said Cruz. “With respect to states that have affirmatively legalized pot, my view is a federalist view, which is (that) we should defer to the states on that.”