Five years ago, as Ted Cruz plotted his path to the U.S. Senate, the anti-establishment crusader sought a private audience with and the backing of one of the faces of the modern GOP establishment: George W. Bush.
In a never-before-reported meeting in Bush’s Dallas office, Cruz began to outline his 2012 campaign playbook for the former president, according to people familiar with the conversation. Cruz explained how he would consolidate conservatives yearning for a political outsider, how he would outflank the front-runner on the right, how he would proudly carry the mantle of the ascendant tea party to victory over entrenched elites.
It was impressive foreshadowing. But Bush cut Cruz off before he could finish.
“I guess you don’t want my support,” Bush interrupted. “Ted, what the hell do you think I am?”
If the idea of a private meeting between Bush and Cruz seems strange now, it was not so odd at the time. While Cruz is running for president in 2016 as the consummate outsider, he launched his political career as a Bush administration insider, and his relationship with the GOP establishment is far deeper and more complex than he lets on.
On the trail today, Cruz bashes the “Washington cartel,” jokes of being so hated in the U.S. Capitol that he needs a “food-taster,” and says at nearly every stop, “If you see a candidate Washington embraces, run and hide.”
But 16 years ago, as a young domestic policy adviser for Bush’s 2000 campaign, Cruz himself had sought Washington’s embrace. He’d uprooted his life, taken an 80 percent pay cut and moved to Austin, Texas, with visions of a big, important White House job to follow.
Almost from his arrival at Bush’s headquarters, colleagues say Cruz flashed many of the same assets and liabilities still on his political balance sheet: acumen and ambition, combative and conservative instincts, elbows as sharp as his smarts, a knack for self-promotion and rubbing colleagues the wrong way.
When Bush won, however, Cruz would not get the White House post he had dreamed of; instead, he found himself in the bureaucratic backwater of the Federal Trade Commission. “Through mistakes of my own, I put the fault nowhere other than myself, I burned some bridges on that campaign,” Cruz told Politico in an interview. “I chalk it up to youth and immaturity.”
“It was a difficult chapter when you poured your heart into something for two years and the desires of your heart are denied. That’s hard. And particularly when you’re seeing so many of your friends rewarded.”
The snub marked a crucial inflection point in Cruz’s career, one that led the young lawyer to soon give up on Washington. In just over two years, he’d move back to Texas where he would reinvent himself as solicitor general and climb the political ladder anew, this time as a fire-breathing, tea-partying, anti-Washington insurgent.
“Not getting the job made him angry. But what it allowed, in a quirk of history, is it put him in the right place when the country got angry, also,” said a veteran of the Bush 2000 operation who, like most of the nearly two dozen people interviewed for this article about Cruz’s time in the Bush orbit, spoke on condition of anonymity. “He would not have had this moment if he began in the White House [then]. That ended up being a gift to him. He saw his moment when it came.”
That moment appears to be now. Powered by the Republican electorate’s disgust with the GOP elite that had rejected him 16 years ago as a junior staffer, Cruz is on an outsider’s course that has led him to enter next week’s Iowa caucuses in a virtual tie for the lead. But that is, he hopes, only the first stop. The final goal is the prize that eluded him as a young man: the White House.
Cruz had arrived in Austin with the sterling résumé of a Republican insider on the rise. He’d gone to Princeton, been a national debate champion and graduated from Harvard Law. He’d clerked for William Rehnquist, the first-ever Latino clerk for a chief justice of the Supreme Court. He’d taken a job in a connected boutique D.C. law firm, where one of his early clients was none other than future House Speaker John Boehner.
It was all part of Cruz’s master plan. He’d intended to be president since he was at least a teen. In high school, he wrote a frightfully prescient bio for himself that outlined his plans to go to Princeton (check), Harvard Law (check), have a “successful law practice” (check) and then “pursue his real goal—a career in politics.” The Bush campaign was the logical next step. “Ted would like to run for various political offices and eventually achieve a strong enough reputation and track record to run for—and win—President of the United States,” Cruz wrote as a senior in high school.
By the summer of 1999, Cruz wasn’t yet 30 but his CV was already overflowing.
On the 2000 campaign, Cruz’s portfolio was domestic policy, everything from legal issues to immigration to campaign finance. Coworkers said Cruz was more conservative than most on the team, often agitating to take harder right positions. “He was the chief propeller head,” said Mark McKinnon, who was Bush’s chief strategist on the campaign. “He was the smartest guy in the room, who had a lot of confidence. But that was a good thing. You want that in your research team.”
Added McKinnon, “He leaned in.”
But Cruz, almost from the start, leaned in too far. Several 2000 colleagues recalled how Cruz would position himself prominently whenever a national news outlet came to town. When the Washington Post’s Style section wrote about why the campaign was based in the liberal enclave of Austin, it was Cruz who gave the Post reporter a tour of the headquarters.
When another Post reporter, now columnist Dana Milbank, came to profile the Bush campaign’s young bucks, Cruz eagerly volunteered himself. “When I mentioned this self-promotional effort to a senior Bush adviser,” Milbank recalled in a column more than a decade later. “I received a knowing eye-roll in response.” Milbank decided to profile someone else.
“It struck me that he was all pure unbridled ambition,” Milbank recalled in a recent interview. “I picked up a guy who would use whatever means necessary to get on top. He was like, ‘No, I’m the guy you should be writing about.’ I guess, in retrospect, he was right.”
Cruz kept in touch anyway. “He would send out, at fairly regular intervals, these email updates on his triumphs and conquests,” Milbank said.
Some 2000 colleagues questioned Cruz’s work ethic. “He acted like he was smarter than everybody and because he was that, he didn’t have to work as hard,” said one Bush 2000 veteran. Said another, “He didn’t make a lot of friends, but I found it mostly driven by the fact he didn’t carry his fair share of the work. In fact, he was downright lazy during the campaign.”
Ted saw the bright lights of the White House and wanted them to shine on him,” Fleischer said.
About a half dozen of Cruz’s campaign colleagues specifically recalled him leaving work around 5 p.m., only to return late at night to send off emails to senior campaign officials. In an era before everyone had smartphones, they said, the aim seemed clear to them—he was trying to make it look as if he’d been working continuously.
“Simply not true,” Cruz told Politico. “I was typically there very late at night, almost every day. I mean there were a lot of nights where I’d go home 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning.”
But Cruz acknowledges he made mistakes. “Listen, I am neither the first nor the last person to learn lessons when you’re young,” he said. “And maturity and humility are two of the most important lessons that most young people need to learn, and I certainly needed to learn.”
Ari Fleischer, who would go on to become White House press secretary, called himself “one of the few people in Bush world who likes” Cruz. “I always found Ted to be affable, self-deprecating, smart and enjoyable to be around,” Fleischer said. But he still said that Cruz had carved out a debilitating reputation for himself internally.
“Ted saw the bright lights of the White House and wanted them to shine on him,” Fleischer said. “He was young, extremely smart and ambitious, and he wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to misplay his cards and try to walk into that building. And in an environment where teamwork and modesty was prized, Ted didn’t fit that mold.”
Others said Cruz was known for trying to angle additional time with Bush, both on the trail and at the governor’s mansion, where the policy team would brief Bush in private sessions. “He was not a bad guy. It all just was someone looking for face-time with the then governor,” said a third 2000 campaign aide. “It just seemed so much more obvious when he does it. He lacks a subtlety that a lot of other people bring. He makes it feel like he wears his ambitions on his sleeve.”
Said a fourth Bush adviser: “Climbers like that really stood out and mostly got made fun of. They were people who were never really able to work their way into the inner circle.”
Rick Tyler, a Cruz spokesman on the 2016 campaign, dismissed all the complaints as unimportant. “That’s the trivial things petty people say when you’re trying to diminish someone,” Tyler said.
As for Bush himself, he took to calling Cruz, “Theodore.”
“Perhaps because I came off as super-serious,” Cruz wrote in his 2015 autobiography, A Time for Truth. “I don’t know if he assumed that was my full name, which it is not, but it didn’t really matter for his purposes.”
By the Thursday after the election, Cruz was on a plane to Florida to join Bush’s legal team. To hear Cruz tell it, he was indispensably in the middle of the historic recount. He slept only seven hours in the first six days in Florida. “It was one step shy of utter chaos,” he wrote in his book. “I should know, because I helped manage the process.”
That’s not how everyone remembered his role. While those involved say Cruz was a part of the legal team, he was not at its epicenter.
“I have no recollection of working with him or ever seeing him involved in the process,” said Barry Richard, who was the Bush campaign’s lead counsel in Florida. With Cruz now running for president, Richard has gone back to his files to search for Cruz’s name. “I finally found one book that noted that he had been working for Ted Olson and he had some work on some briefing or something,” he said. Richard is a Democrat, as he was in 2000, and he is married to the chair of the Florida Democratic Party, though not active in partisan politics himself.