Why Ted Cruz Thinks the Media Gets Conservatism Wrong

Texas Senator Ted Cruz talks to TIME about Barack Obama, foreign policy and his spats with fellow Republicans

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, right, talks with Republican Party of Iowa co-chairman David Fischer before a fundraising picnic for the Iowa Republican Party in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 19, 2013

Alex Altman’s profile in this week’s magazine, “Cruz Control,” can be read here for those with a TIME subscription. Not a subscriber? Click here.

In seven short months, Ted Cruz has become the most controversial member of the Senate. Perhaps the most combative member of a chamber known for comity, Cruz’s withering criticisms of Washington have made him a champion for the conservative base and a potential pot stirrer in the 2016 GOP nominating contest. Cruz, whom I profile in the new issue of the magazine, sat down with TIME on Aug. 2 at a hotel in New Orleans, where he delivered a speech to the RedState Gathering of conservative activists. Below are excerpts of his comments, which are condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What do people misinterpret about you?
I don’t know what others misinterpret. I think most Americans don’t really care about politicians bickering in Washington. There have been some political actors and some elite [media] that have tried to paint a caricature and thrown some rather heated insults. I have not reciprocated, and I don’t intend to reciprocate. Indeed, in my time in office, I have endeavored not to speak an ill word about any colleague.

There’s an old joke that politics is Hollywood for ugly people. An awful lot of the press coverage about Washington reads like coverage of Hollywood. Madonna is having some spat with Sean Penn. Who cares? And who cares which politician is mad at that politician? My single greatest frustration in Washington is in the seven months, the U.S. Senate has spent virtually zero time even talking about jobs and the economy. We spent a month battling about taking away people’s Second Amendment gun rights.

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I do think in the media there is a tendency to describe conservatives as one of two things: stupid or evil. And those are the two categories that every conservative gets put in by Democrats and the media. A conservative is either stupid — too dumb to know the right answer — and even worse, if they actually know the right answer, then they’re evil. They want people to suffer. I suppose I feel mildly complimented in that they have recently invented a third category, which is crazy. It’s the alternative to stupid or evil. And now crazy is the third one, because it seems inconceivable that there could be Americans who believe in free-market principles and believe in the Constitution and are working to defend them.

Even if you have not engaged in ad hominem attacks, your criticism of fellow Republicans as a group has been quite strong.

That’s an important distinction. From the day I began campaigning, we focused on the undeniable fact that career politicians in both parties have gotten us in the mess we’re in. There’s a significant difference, however, between speaking about problems generically that are occurring in the Washington establishment and entrenched politicians, and insulting a particular officeholder.

The way you talk about empowering the grassroots reminds me a lot of Barack Obama. Disagreements in policy aside, did you watch Obama in 2008 and build certain elements of your approach off his? 

I think Barack Obama is an extraordinary politician. And I respect Barack Obama a great deal. I think he is committed to his principles, which is rare in politics. Now I also think, and please don’t leave this part out, that the principles he believes in are profoundly dangerous. I respect that he believes, I think genuinely, with all of his heart, that government control of economy and redistribution of wealth betters the world. I think moving in that direction has wreaked havoc to the American economy. The people who suffer in the Obama economy have been young people, African Americans, Hispanics, single moms.

There were two campaigns on which we modeled our campaign for Senate, and they were Obama’s campaign for President in 2008 and Marco Rubio’s campaign for Senate in 2010. If you look at that 2008 Democratic primary, there was no more formidable, unstoppable candidate — other than an incumbent President — in modern times than Hillary Clinton. And Barack Obama ran a guerrilla campaign that empowered the people. So for Christmas I gave a number of campaign staffers David Plouffe’s book, The Audacity to Win.

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If you go back to 2011, everybody in Texas believed [my] race was impossible. What I would say on the campaign trail is very similar to what I say now with respect to [defunding] Obamacare. Conventional wisdom said this was impossible, that I cannot win this race. And you know what? They’re right. I can’t win this race. It is beyond my capacity. But you can. In this fight against Obamacare, everyone’s telling the people they can’t do this. That the graybeards in Washington have decided this is not an option. And I think there is no more potent force in politics than the grassroots, mobilized and standing up.

How would you characterize your foreign policy views? 

Right now there is a divide, say, between the views of John McCain on the one hand and the views of Rand Paul on the other. I like and respect both men, and I would say that my views are somewhere in the middle. The person whose views on foreign policy mine are closest to is Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s views on foreign policy, and how I would characterize my views, are that I think the United States should be a clarion voice for liberty, that we should speak against oppression, against tyranny and for freedom.

I think the U.S. needs to be exceedingly reluctant to put our men and women in harm’s way. I think if and when military action is justified, it should be justified only to protect the vital national-security interest of the U.S. But I also recognize the U.S. is today the world’s lone superpower. We have nations that have considerable hostile intents toward the U.S. And we have radical Islamic terrorists who would readily murder our citizens. I support peace through strength. I think developing our military strength so that we can defend our national-security interests makes it far less likely we’ll be drawn into war.

I think being unequivocal about redlines that cannot be crossed serves as a far more effective deterrent than the Obama Administration’s endless negotiation with no clear consequence. The President laid out a redline on Syria. Then there were no consequences for months. What does that tell the world? When the U.S. says something, at least under this President, we don’t mean it. You can ignore what we say.

Are you running for President?

I am a big believer in the principle that good policy makes good politics. I understand a great many people want to focus on the politics of 3½ years from now. What I can tell you is that my focus every day is on the U.S. Senate, because the Senate is the battlefield. And what I tell my staff is, if we do the right thing, the politics will take care of itself.

If you look at the last 40 years, the clearest pattern that emerges is when Republicans nominate a strong conservative as a presidential candidate, Republicans win. When Republicans nominate a candidate who runs as a moderate, Republicans lose. Now what is the conclusion of all the political consultants in Washington, looking at those last 40 years? We need to nominate a moderate. Because they’ve lost every single race for four decades.

Alex Altman’s profile in this week’s magazine, “Cruz Control,” can be read here for those with a TIME subscription. Not a subscriber? Click here.