Column: The GOP's Lone Star rock star
SAN DIEGO -- Ten years ago, I sat at dinner with a friend in Washington -- an Ivy League-educated lawyer in his early 30s. We were with our wives. Just two childless couples enjoying a carefree evening before the days when going to dinner meant inquiring whether a restaurant is "kid friendly."
A Hispanic Republican from Houston who worked on the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 and then recruited lawyers to oversee the Florida recount, my friend had also worked at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. These were steppingstones.
The lawyer was Ted Cruz, who is now the first Hispanic U.S. senator in Texas history. In a show of respect and an acknowledgement of what this 42-year-old could do to help the GOP at a time when Hispanics are a sought-after group of voters, Cruz was named vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee -- just eight days after being elected.
He is already being discussed as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, despite the fact that he was born in Canada where his father, Rafael, went to work after immigrating to the United States from Cuba. Constitutional experts say that Cruz could make the case that he qualifies as "a natural-born citizen of the United States" because his mother was a U.S. citizen.
Welcome to Cruzmania.
If Republicans are ever going to win a greater share of the Hispanic vote despite their insensitive rhetoric on immigration, rock stars like Cruz cannot be allowed to fail. And, if Democrats are going to keep their hold on Hispanics, these up-and-comers cannot be allowed to succeed.
Cruz is already a target for Democrats, for three reasons.
First, as the son of an immigrant, Cruz has a great story, and Americans have a soft spot for those.
Next, he forces Democrats to work harder to keep Hispanics in their column when they prefer to have them in their back pockets.
Finally, he punches hard and doesn't back up. He seems to have been gearing up to brawl with Democrats his whole life.
Listen to what Cruz told me, just 24 hours after being sworn in, when most other freshman senators would be treading lightly.
"I think the Hispanic community is profoundly conservative," he said. "The values that resonate in our community are faith, family, patriotism. The rate of military enlistment among Hispanics is higher than any other demographic. Hispanic men and women want to work. Want to provide for our kids. Want to stand on our own feet. Those are all conservative values."
Noting that there are 2.3 million Hispanic small-business owners in the United States -- accounting for about one in 10 Hispanic households -- Cruz insists that our community is all about entrepreneurial spirit.
"The Democrats are trying to sell the Hispanic community a bill of goods," he said. "They're trying to tell Hispanics, 'Wouldn't it be good to be dependent on government?' But dependence is incredibly corrosive and we ought to be encouraging people to stand on their own and work toward the American Dream."
Cruz is well-schooled in the American Dream. He had a good teacher.
"I was standing on the Senate floor," Cruz said near the end of our chat. "And I couldn't help but think back to 1957, to my dad as an 18-year-old kid, not speaking English, washing dishes, making 50 cents an hour. And if someone had come up to that teenage immigrant and suggested that 55 years hence, his son might be sworn into office as a United States senator representing the great state of Texas, that would have been unimaginable to him. And yet, as I stood with my hand on the family Bible, my father was sitting in the gallery looking down -- as I took the oath to become a United States senator."
I blurted out: "Only in America, pal. Only in America."
"That's exactly right," he said. "It's one small illustration of the incredible opportunity, the power of the American Dream that is present in no other nation on earth the way it is in the United States. And my commitment in the U.S. Senate is to spend every day fighting to preserve the American Dream and that opportunity and freedom for generations to come, just like you and I have been blessed to enjoy them."
Democrats, you are right to worry.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.