The field guide to Ted Cruz

1) Ted Cruz is not a fire-breathing extremist.
Cruz, obviously, is a polarizing figure, for several reasons. One is that he is perceived as a hard-line conservative, if not a genuine extremist. This is a misconception that he has encouraged, by casting himself as someone outside the party establishment, to the right of his colleagues. He campaigned in 2012 as a Tea Party insurgent and has staged numerous fights in Congress, in opposition to the so-called conciliators of the surrender caucus. He is now stumping around Iowa, denouncing the “Washington cartel.”

There’s no question that Cruz is a conservative. On constitutional issues, I’d say he’s the gold standard. But he’s not as extreme or ideological as people often assume. Maggie Wright, a Texan who has traveled to Iowa to volunteer, gave journalist (and Texas Monthly contributor) Robert Draper an admirably concise summary: “He’s for states’ rights, for all the Constitution, he will not allow us to bash the gays but won’t let anybody do jihad on the Christians.” Similarly, though Cruz is one of the few Republicans in Congress who passes muster with the right wing’s self-appointed purity czars, and he is contemptuous of conservatives who assert principled convictions they do nothing to advance, he is ecumenical about disagreement. “In any two-party system you welcome people with a variety of views,” he told me in 2013, after I asked if the Republican coalition could include leaders who support gay marriage, or even abortion rights. And Cruz is not the kind of partisan who casts his opponents as evil or stupid; his provocations are more subtle. In 2013, having described Barack Obama as an “honest-to-god socialist,” he added that he was using the word in its literal sense: “It describes a means of structuring an economy. Socialism is government ownership or control of the means of production or distribution.”

Because Cruz is currently running for the Republican nomination, the perception that he is a ferocious hard-liner serves his interests, and he’s not likely to dispute it. But even on the campaign trail, fielding questions from the grassroots, his answers are more nuanced than his reputation would suggest. As the campaign goes on he is likely to devote more attention to issues such as economic opportunity, which he emphasized in a January 2013 speech, shortly after being sworn in to the Senate.