Ted Cruz, 47, a Harvard Law School graduate who, among other posts, served as Texas solicitor general, seeks re-election to the U.S. Senate where he is completing his first term. A Republican, he ran for president in 2016. He serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Judiciary Committee, Joint Economic Committee and Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, chairing the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness. He toured the SpaceX rocket-testing facility in McGregor on Aug. 12, 2016, commenting then that he would “continue to work closely with the commercial space industry to ensure that companies like SpaceX have the freedom to thrive.” The Trib interview below was conducted just prior to a McLennan County Republican Club rally for the senator on Oct. 19.
Q You’ve proven one of President Donald Trump’s most reliable supporters. Many Central Texans vigorously supported your own presidential candidacy in 2016. Acknowledging that you remain committed to the president’s goals and your own, how might a Ted Cruz presidential administration have differed in tone and policy?
A I don’t think it’s terribly productive to engage in that hypothetical. What I can tell you is what my approach has been the last two years. With Donald Trump as president, with Republican majorities in both houses, I think we had a historic opportunity. We still do. We’ve had Republican presidents and Republican majorities in both houses only four times in 100 years.
A It’s rare. It does not happen very often, and so my view was we couldn’t blow it. We couldn’t waste this opportunity. There have really been two things that have consumed all my time in Washington the past two years. One is trying to bring Republicans together and get 50 Republicans to yes. We have an excruciatingly narrow majority, 51-49. That is not an easy endeavor, but I think I’m in an unusual if not even a unique position in the Senate of being able to speak with real credibility to conservatives but also being able to speak to moderates, to leadership, to the president, to the administration, and trying to find common ground. To say, “All right, how can we deliver on our promises?” The most significant example of that was the tax-cut bill of 2017. I spent thousands of hours trying to bring our conference together to deliver on that, and I think Texas is benefiting enormously. The other big thing I’ve devoted a lot of time to is doing everything I can to encourage the president, to encourage the administration, to go in a positive direction and not a negative direction. There are a number of things President Trump says and tweets that I wouldn’t say and I wouldn’t tweet. I don’t have any ability to control that. What I have done instead is ignore the political circus of Washington and focus on substance. Focus on tax cuts and repealing job-killing regulations and getting the economy moving. My No. 1 priority is job, jobs, jobs, because that’s the No. 1 priority of Texans.
Q You bring up an interesting subject. Many Americans are concerned about declining civil discourse in our country. That goes for the leftists who heckled you and your wife in a restaurant. That is to be resoundingly condemned. There was white powder shipped to your Houston office. Yet we also have things like the president going up to Montana and inciting violence against the Fourth Estate. You guys are supposed to be leaders. I appreciate you’re trying to get the president to ratchet things down. Where does the problem start? When the president does something like what he did in Montana, that guarantees the other side’s going to get just as riled up.
A This is a deeply polarized time. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of rage. I don’t think that’s healthy for our country. I don’t have the ability to change what others say. I do have the ability to control what I say and so my approach to politics has always been to approach on substance and issues and policy, not to engage in personal attacks, not to go down into the gutter, which so many people do. When others attack me, and that’s happened more than once in my time in the Senate, I try not to respond in kind but instead to focus on policy differentials. Now look, in this Senate race I’m drawing a stark contrast with Beto O’Rourke on substance and policy, on his voting record and my voting record. I think that should be the meat of politics.
Q You’re absolutely right, but here we have [Cruz and O’Rourke supporters] actually fighting over Beto’s Hispanic nickname. That was his name as a kid. You’re one of our leaders.
A What I consistently focus on, what I focused on in the debates, what I focus on in the campaign, is issues and substance. For example, on taxes I helped lead the effort to cut taxes and we’re seeing incredible economic results. Congressman O’Rourke voted no on the tax cut and he has a long record of voting in favor of tax increases over and over again. I think that’s bad policy. I think that hurts Texas. On regulations, I’ve helped lead the effort with the administration to repeal regulations that were hammering the State of Texas. Congressman O’Rourke disagrees. He supports those regulations, wants to reinstate them. I think it’s important to have those discussions about what’s good for Texas, what produces jobs, but to do so with civility and respect. Last year I did three debates on CNN with Bernie Sanders — town-hall debates, 90 minutes each, one on health care, two on tax policy, and they were substance and issues. And, listen, Bernie and I are about as far apart as two people in politics can be.
Q That’s for sure.
A But we had a civil exchange of what ideas work. Bernie is an unabashed socialist. He admits it, embraces it, so we could talk about whether socialism is a good idea. I think it has been a disastrous economic policy and so we can talk about what have been the outcomes of that. But when you see people like the group that surrounded Heidi and me in the restaurant begin screaming and yelling — well, we’ve got to be able to disagree with civility in a way that treats each other with decency, treats each other in a way that respects our humanity.
Q You’ve mentioned the tax policy and this country’s $21 trillion in debt. Our [deficit’s] going to be $779 billion. You can’t cut taxes and cut spending. Our discretionary spending alone is more than our deficit, so the question is, how do we pay off the debt? How do we get back to a balanced budget? What goes?
A Enormously important question. I am deeply, deeply concerned about the national debt. It is a profound threat to national security. I think what we’re doing to our kids and grandkids is immoral.
Q I’m not sure it’s the kids and grandkids anymore, I think it’s us.
A If you rewind the clock to the year 2000, the national debt was $5 trillion. We had a Republican president, George W. Bush, and after eight years it had doubled from $5 trillion to $10 trillion. Then we got Barack Obama and in eight years it doubled again from $10 trillion to $20 trillion.
To put that in perspective, it took 41 presidents over two centuries to accumulate $5 trillion in debt — and two presidents in 16 years quadrupled that — one a Republican, one a Democrat. Our national debt’s now larger than the size of our economy. That is an incredible threat. The question is: How do we turn it around? If you look at the federal budget — and I’m a numbers person — there is only one first-order variable when it comes to the federal budget, and that is economic growth. Everything else is at best a second-order or a third-order variable. It’s the reason why, or one of the reasons why, I am so obsessively focused on jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. The two levers you have for economic growth and jobs are tax reform and regulatory reform. Since World War II our economy’s grown on average 3.3 percent a year. During the Obama years we were consistently at 1 or 2 percent GDP growth. If we stay at 1 or 2 percent GDP growth, you can’t turn around the deficit and debt. The math doesn’t work. It’s simply impossible. If you get back to historic levels of 3, 4, 5 percent—
Q Is that even possible?
A It is, and for eight years of Obama, you remember we had a White House economist going on TV saying 1 and 2 percent is the new normal, that structurally we can’t change it. Last quarter we grew at 4.2 percent. Obama said a couple of years ago to get to 4 percent would take a magic wand. It’s not magic. Look through history: In the 1920s Calvin Coolidge cut taxes, lifted regulations and the economy took off. In the 1960s John F. Kennedy cut taxes, limited regulations, the economy took off. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan cut taxes, limited regulations, the economy took off. The reason I’m so focused on tax cuts and reg reform is because with booming economic growth, it’s a double whammy in terms of the federal budget. When the economy is booming, number one, expenditures go down because people go off of food stamps, they go off of unemployment, they go off of disability, so your expenditures are going down. Simultaneously, they’re getting jobs, they’re paying in tax revenue and so your revenue goes up. If we keep the economy moving at 4 percent, 5 percent, that is the only force strong enough to really start paying down the debt. A second component, if you look at where we are now, we have the tax cut. A lot of folks reported that this was a budget-busting tax cut. I believe that is incorrect. In the 1960s when JFK cut both corporate and individual taxes, federal tax revenues went up, and they went up significantly. In the 1980s when Reagan cut corporate and individual tax rates, federal tax revenues went up, and they went up significantly.
The problem in Washington is spending has gone up even more. It’s not a tax problem, it’s a spending problem, and that’s a bipartisan problem.
Q If you take every bit of government spending off the table but entitlements, you still don’t balance the budget.
A It’s why you need growth. Growth can do it. You’re right, we can’t cut our way to do it, absent growth. If you have sustained growth, the math, the numbers turn around. I think there are also two structural reforms that are very important, which is a federal balanced budget amendment and a federal term limits amendment. I’m the author of the term limits amendment. I would limit members of Congress to three terms, members of the Senate to two terms. And the reason I think that’s so important structurally is part of the reason for our ever-expanding growth: You have career politicians who just want to stay in office. The easiest way to stay in office is just keep spending and spending and spending, and that ends up putting us all in a hole.
Q Republican candidates on the ballot tell us immigration remains a key concern. The president had a package of reforms. This newspaper backed the Trump plan. It was the one offering 1.8 million Dreamers a path to citizenship, border security, some changes in visa status. That went down in flames both because of Republicans and Democrats.
A I’ve many times described my immigration views in four words: legal, good; illegal, bad. Which I think most Texans agree with. On the illegal side, we need to do everything necessary to secure the border and stop illegal immigration. That includes a wall, but a wall’s not a panacea. We also need technology, infrared, fixed-wing, rotary-wing aircraft. We need boots on the ground. I’ve long advocated tripling the border patrol and using the tools we have to secure the border. At the same time we welcome and celebrate legal immigrants.
Q Don’t we seem to be going the other way on that?
A The president, I think sensibly, is trying to shift us to more of a skills-based and merit-based immigration system. I think that makes a lot of sense — Canada has a point system — so that we’d encourage the best and the brightest, “If you want to come to America, become an engineer, become a doctor, become a nurse, and bring the skills and talents that will drive our economy and move us forward.” I think that many other countries do that. Our immigration system right now is skewed away from skills and merit. I think that [merit system] makes sense. Look, I’m the son of an immigrant. My dad came from Cuba in 1957. When he came to Texas, he came as a student. He had been imprisoned, he’d been tortured in Cuba, and when he came to Texas it was because the University of Texas had let him in. He paid his way through school. He got a math degree from UT and he went on. You look at the progression. My dad’s first job was washing dishes, making 50 cents an hour. He didn’t speak English. That was a great job if you couldn’t speak English. He learned English pretty quickly. His second job was as a cook. He made 80 cents an hour. Same restaurant, but that was a much better job. He liked they got paid more and you didn’t have your hand under scalding water all day long. His next job was as a teaching assistant at UT, helping teach undergrads math. His next job after that was as a computer programmer at IBM. He ultimately went on to start a small business with my mom, a seismic data-processing company in the oil and gas business. Today my dad’s a pastor and he preaches all over the state. That journey, that’s the American Dream. That’s the story of Texas. I’ve told my father’s story all over the state. I think it’s one example of who we are. So I think the right way to approach immigration is to get serious about securing the border which, among other things, is also the humane thing to do. The more we have policies that encourage illegal immigration, the more you have kids being abused by human traffickers. Horrible things are happening to these people that are being trafficked in. The much more humane way to do it is have a legal system where you’re not entrusting some drug cartel to get your 14-year-old daughter to America.
Q The White House warns we have another swelling of immigrants who seek entry — “caravan,” I believe, is the word used. You were visibly moved at immigrant camps that inspired so much controversy this year. You and Senator John Cornyn looked into this crisis of separating children from immigrants parents. Any concerns about the president’s latest decision to try a similar policy on our border?
A Let me break that into two pieces and talk about the caravan, then talk about family separation separately. With the caravan, I think we need to marshal the law enforcement resources necessary to stop that group of thousands of people from crossing into the country illegally. I mean, it’s not hard to see where a group of 4,000 people are and where they’re coming. If they attempt to cross the border illegally, I think we need to mass border patrol there to stop them. If need be, call up the National Guard to do that, which President Trump has done, President Bush has done, President Obama has done. I mean, there’s a long history and legal basis for using the National Guard to supplement border security. And with something like a group of 4,000, that’s a natural place where it would make sense. On family separation, this should be an issue that brings us together, that brings Republicans and Democrats together. We should all be able to agree that families should not be separated.
Q Why doesn’t it?
A Politics. I think we should all agree that kids belong with their parents, with their mom or dad. I filed legislation to address this, to keep families together, to prevent family separation. Now, for many Democrats, including my Democratic opponent, the solution they embrace is simply to release everybody. They say, “Well, the way to keep families together is just let everybody go.” That’s a mistake. That only encourages more illegal immigration, more people being abused by the cartels. So the legislation I introduced mandates families must stay together but stay together in a secure, stable facility. And we should expedite the immigration processes. My legislation doubles the number of federal immigration judges. It speeds it up so if individuals have a valid claim for asylum, that should be heard and granted. And if the—
Q Should judges be hurried, as we keep hearing?
A If you double the number of immigration judges, you can expedite them much more easily. That’s why the first piece [of the solution] is making sure that you have the manpower to consider them. If [immigrants] have a valid claim, it should be decided and granted. But if they don’t have a valid claim, it should be adjudicated and they should be put on a plane and sent home. If we can come together and agree on two simple principles — keep families together and enforce the law — we’ll have legislation that can pass. I can tell you, the last several months I’ve been negotiating with Democrats, most notably Dianne Feinstein. She and I have met many, many times. We’re trading drafts back and forth. We started with a bill I filed. We haven’t reached agreement yet, and we’re not going to before the election, at this point. But I hold out hope that there’s a real possibility, after the election, that we’ll find common ground on this.
Q Another thing that appeared to strongly move you, judging from your speech on the Senate floor, was the historic flooding after Harvey. We even took your speech and published it as a column in the Trib.
All these hurricanes we’re getting, their intensity — does this change your thoughts on climate change? Whether sunspots or man-made, what should we be doing? I feel we’re not doing anything, yet something is quite obviously happening.
A For the broader question of climate change and global warming, if you look at the rate of hurricanes in the last decade, the rate of hurricanes is down. Now, we’ve had some really bad ones recently. I’m from Houston. Hurricanes are a part of life on the Gulf Coast. Harvey was the worst hurricane we’ve ever seen. I mean, it was devastating on the Gulf Coast. I think when it comes to matters of global warming, we should be driven by the science and the evidence. I am the son of two mathematicians and computer programmers. I believe in science. I’m the chairman of the Science and Space Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. I think when it comes to climate-change issues, there are many who are driven by political agendas, who want to see high taxes and high regulation. That’s the outcome they want, regardless of what the science and evidence and data support.
Q But look at the National Flood Insurance Program. We’re going into debt in that program because we keep allowing people to rebuild homes in the very same places, sometimes several times. It’s indicative of folks in Washington not learning.
A I’ll give you some encouragement on that. Look, being frustrated with the inertia of Washington will always be a reasonable response. But some encouragement that we are moving in the right direction is this: If you look at Hurricane Harvey, it devastated 250 miles of the Gulf Coast. I spent months traveling to every community that was impacted, two, three, four, five times to each community, working on a daily basis with county judges and mayors and police chiefs and school superintendents and marshaling the federal resources to help those communities recover. We saw in Washington remarkable bipartisan consensus. The Texas delegation worked together very, very effectively, and we passed four major disaster relief bills. The first came out of the House within a couple of weeks of Harvey. It was at $7.5 billion. In the Senate, John Cornyn and I teamed up and doubled that to $15.25 billion. That provided the first emergency relief on the ground. The next bill was a flood insurance bill to replenish the National Flood Insurance [Program]. That was $36 billion. That also had bipartisan support and passed. The third bill was the biggest of the disaster relief bills. It came out of the House at $81 billion. In the Senate, again, John Cornyn and I teamed up. We increased it from $81 billion to $89 billion. More importantly, we changed the formulas so Texas got a much larger share of that relief because Texas had the most damaging hurricane. The relief should go where the damage was. We’d seen past disaster relief bills where they become Christmas trees, where everyone just sort of adds all their spending priorities.
Q Was that what you didn’t like about the Sandy package?
A There was unrelated spending that wasn’t disaster relief. That’s why virtually every Republican from Texas voted against it. When Harvey happened, we came together and said, “Listen, we have an opportunity to be responsible here, to direct this relief at real damage caused by the disaster. All of us refrain from whatever your personal pet project is. Don’t try to stick it in here. Keep it focused on where the damage occurred.” But also part of it is spending in a smart way. For example, the Senate bill that went from $81 billion to $89 billion, we also plussed up the Army Corps of Engineers [so half of relevant Corps construction funds went for Texas-specific projects]. The Army Corps now has funding for a study for a third reservoir in Houston beyond Barker and Addicks which could’ve stopped thousands of homes from being flooded. [It] has funding for the beginning of a coastal spine [a system of coastal levees and floodwalls] to protect much of the infrastructure. What we’ve urged — and we’ve worked with Harris County and other counties and with the Army Corps — is when we rebuild, which we’re doing now, we’re saying, “Let’s build in a smart way. Don’t just build the exact same thing that’s going to flood again next time there’s a flood. If you’re rebuilding something, make it deeper, make it wider, make it more durable so we don’t find ourselves, a couple of years from now, doing it again.” Is it perfect? Of course not. But I do think the delegation acted smartly.
Q You know law and history. Are you not worried about the political norms we see disappearing?
A This is a crazy time. There are a lot of forces that are in politics that do not reflect how I approach it. Take for example the [Judge Brett] Kavanaugh hearings. That was obviously something that riveted the country. I believe Senate Democrats behaved in a deeply partisan manner that was really a sad demonstration for the Senate.
Q Our congressman hates the Senate filibuster. Is that a good rule? You’re famously associated with it.
A I would end the filibuster. Three or four years ago I would’ve said no, we shouldn’t end it. I’ve changed my mind on that. A couple of things have changed. First, the scope of the Democrats’ abuse of the filibuster in the last couple of years is unprecedented. The filibuster historically has been used to stop legislation you really disagree with on the big fights. We’re now at a point where Democrats are filibustering virtually everything. And so it is an across-the-board blockade. But secondly, I think the Democratic Caucus in the Senate has gotten extreme enough that the next time they get a majority, they’ll end the filibuster.
Q Are you prepared for the House of Representatives to flip to the Democrats, as is widely predicted?
A I think if it happens, we are headed toward an absolute political circus.
Complete gridlock. I think it’s Mad Max at Thunderdome. I think it’s impeachment. I think it is a dozen investigations.
Q Do you really think it is impeachment?
A Yes. Their base is so angry that if they win by being extreme and angry, I think they’ll get more extreme and angry.