HOUSTON -- On the third floor of a nondescript office building alongside Interstate 10 sits the Free Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that is arguably as responsible for Sen. Ted Cruz as the voters who elected him.
While other 13-year-olds were passing time doing what 13-year-olds typically do, a teenaged Cruz spent his free time reading Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, burying himself in the study of free-market economics and the U.S. Constitution offered by programs for adolescents that are still run by the institute.
By the time Cruz graduated high school, he had given nearly 100 speeches in Texas and nationally under the auspices of the institute. To this day, Cruz's penchant for speaking without a podium and addressing his audience with a deliberate, enunciated cadence and clearly defined arguments peppered with quotes from the Founders and conservative philosophers, is a remnant of the institute's competitive speaking and debate program that indelibly shaped the senator's public persona.
During the July 4 congressional recess, the Washington Examiner spent some time with Cruz, 42, at the offices of the Free Enterprise Institute to discuss his first six months in the Senate and the Republican Party's Hispanic dilemma. At the conclusion of the interview, Cruz, unprompted, made one final point about Hispanics and the GOP.
"The Hispanic community is a profoundly conservative community," he said. "The values that resonate in our community are faith, family, patriotism... and hard work."
Examiner: You've been in the Senate six months. Have there been any frustrations with the job?
Cruz: My biggest surprise upon getting to the Senate was the defeatist attitude of so many Republicans. I think, particularly coming out of the 2012 elections, Republicans were down and, over and over again, more senior Republicans would basically pat me on the head and say, "Well, you can vote no, and then we'll lose." And I'll admit that that surprised me, the degree to which the pervading attitude was, "We cannot win these fights." That being said, six months into it, I am incredibly encouraged ... because there is a small band of principled conservatives in the Senate who are standing up and leading.
Examiner: Has being in the national spotlight been useful?
Cruz: It is certainly helpful to have a megaphone to have the ability to speak and convey a message. If you look at what went wrong in 2012, there have been lots of autopsies conducted. I think the simplest answer to what went wrong in 2012 is that ... Republicans did a weepingly terrible job winning the argument and making the case that free-market principles advance prosperity and opportunity for everybody. And, one of the real blessings of serving in the Senate is that it provides an opportunity to try to help make that argument in a way that it can be heard.
Examiner: Was Mitt Romney the problem in 2012, or was the problem broader?
Cruz: I think Mitt Romney is a good and decent man. I think he ran a very hard campaign. But in my view, the entire race was lost on two words: 47 percent. And I want to be clear because this is easy to misunderstand. I don't mean the comment. Anyone can make an ill-advised comment, and if you have a TV camera pointed at you 24 hours a day, it is a 100 percent certainty: You, too, will make an ill-advised comment. What I mean is the narrative of the last election. The overarching narrative of the last election, across race after race after race, was that the 47 percent of Americans that are not currently paying income taxes who are in some ways dependent on government -- we don't have to worry about them.
I've advocated what I call "opportunity conservatism," which is that every domestic policy that conservatives think about, talk about, should focus like a laser on opportunity, on easing the means of ascent up the economic ladder. ... How does it impact the least-off among us? And, in the last election, we utterly failed to do so.
Examiner: Romney got 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Is this is a problem for the GOP, or should the party not worry about appealing to demographics and focus on principles?
Cruz: Of course it's a problem that the Republican share of the Hispanic vote is diminishing. If Republicans don't do a better job with the Hispanic community, in the long term, the Republican Party will cease to exist. The demographic numbers are undeniable.
If you look at the polling and why Republicans did so poorly in the Hispanic community ... it was the perception: "Those guys aren't for me, those guys are for the rich guys, those guys are for the people who've already made it."
david drucker Senior Congressional Correspondent