I Watched Ted Cruz Debate in College. Don’t Count Him Out.

“In that environment,” says a fellow debater, “he was cool, spectacular, a god.”

Senator Ted Cruz addresses voters during a town hall meeting at the Lincoln Center on the campus of Morningside College April 1, 2015 in Sioux City, Iowa.
National Journal
Sacha Zimmerman
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Sacha Zimmerman
Aug. 6, 2015, 5:02 a.m.

What do you stand for? Ted Cruz was ask­ing me. We were sit­ting on a stair­case in a tower­ing, run-down New York City brown­stone, at a col­lege party. It was 1991. What would you fight for? he con­tin­ued.

I re­mem­ber think­ing: Who asks ques­tions like this? I was 18 and a fresh­man at Columbia. Cruz was a seni­or at Prin­ceton.

Like, um, ra­cism? I re­spon­ded. I mean, against it.

My memory of the con­ver­sa­tion is less than per­fect all these years later, but I do re­call that Cruz held me in a dis­com­fit­ing gaze and said something about “every Amer­ic­an” that was — to my hor­ror — deeply con­ser­vat­ive. I asked wheth­er he was a Re­pub­lic­an, and he re­spon­ded en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally in the af­firm­at­ive. Cruz ex­plained that we all grow more con­ser­vat­ive as we age. He was thus on the polit­ic­al van­guard. Why wait to grow old, when you can be con­ser­vat­ive now?

Cruz and I were at the same party be­cause we were both col­lege de­baters — spe­cific­ally, par­lia­ment­ary de­baters. For those of us who glommed on to this ex­tra­cur­ricular activ­ity, we had a kind of shad­ow life not ap­par­ent to our col­lege-of-re­cord friends. I took classes with my Columbia com­rades, I roomed with them, I smoked pot with them — but on week­ends, I was with my oth­er friends: my de­bate friends.

(RE­LATED: How Each Pres­id­en­tial Can­did­ate Can Win (or Lose) the First 2016 De­bate)

From Septem­ber un­til April, my team­mates and I would rent cars and cara­van to North­east col­leges — from as far south as Johns Hop­kins to as far north as the Uni­versity of Toronto. Every. Week­end. It was a cir­cuit of hy­per-verbal, hy­per­com­pet­it­ive nerds who were all al­most ex­clus­ively bound for law school. At the time, it seemed ter­ribly cool. In ret­ro­spect, less so. There were about 20 par­ti­cip­at­ing schools, in­clud­ing all the usu­al North­east sus­pects: Mt. Holy­oke, Swarth­more, Har­vard, Yale, Bryn Mawr. Schools had teams as small as two de­baters or as large as 20 or more.

Columbia and Prin­ceton had large de­bate squads with com­pet­it­ive repu­ta­tions. But Cruz’s status was le­gendary. He and his part­ner, Dav­id Pan­ton, dom­in­ated the scene and ended up in more fi­nal rounds than any oth­er team in the coun­try their seni­or year. Cruz and I were friendly, but I have no doubt he looms much lar­ger in my memory than I do in his. (His cam­paign did not make him avail­able for an in­ter­view for this piece.) He was Mi­chael Jordan in a game where I mostly sat on the bench.

Re­cently, I got in touch with eight of my old friends from that world and asked them for their memor­ies of Cruz. Those con­ver­sa­tions, as well as my own re­col­lec­tions, ar­gu­ably shed some light on what we might see to­night when Cruz takes the stage at the first GOP pres­id­en­tial de­bate.

“PAR­LIA­MENT­ARY” IS CODE for ex­tem­por­an­eous de­bate — no le­gions of note­cards, cita­tions, or re­search. We de­bated cases that were re­vealed mo­ments be­fore we were tasked with get­ting up to speak. If the op­pos­ing team hit me with a case in fa­vor of, say, mak­ing Lux­em­bourg a fully owned sub­si­di­ary of France, then I’d have to counter with why that was a ter­rible idea — right then and there, re­gard­less of my pi­ti­able know­ledge of the top­ic or my per­son­al polit­ics. It was an olio of im­pro­visa­tion, cur­rent events, per­sua­sion, and per­form­ance.

When you had to face Cruz in de­bate, “you walked in as­sum­ing you would lose.”

Ted Cruz was a king in Par­lia­ment­ary De­bate Land. And stand­ing out in that crowd was not easy. De­bate at­trac­ted swaths of wun­der­kinds who shared a geeky, cocky con­fid­ence; many of them came from a world of private high schools and rig­or­ous speech teams. Nev­er­the­less, says Raj Vin­nakota — a Prin­ceton de­bater who knew Cruz and who is now the CEO of the SEED Found­a­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — when you had to face Cruz in de­bate, “you walked in as­sum­ing you would lose.”

(RE­LATED: Who’s In and Who’s Out for Thursday’s Prime-Time GOP Pres­id­en­tial De­bate)

At Prin­ceton, ac­cord­ing to Vin­nakota and Scott Ang­streich — a reg­u­lat­ory and ap­pel­late law­yer in Wash­ing­ton — de­bate prac­tice was taken ser­i­ously, and Cruz was an ex­cel­lent ment­or, provid­ing feed­back and help­ing to strengthen young­er mem­bers of the team. “In that en­vir­on­ment,” says Vin­nakota, who was two years young­er than Cruz, “he was cool, spec­tac­u­lar, a god.”

He was ex­cel­lent at con­nect­ing with a large audi­ence (think: ma­chine-gun ba­con). Dae Lev­ine — a former Columbia de­bater in Cruz’s year who is now a com­mu­nic­a­tions strategist liv­ing in Aus­tralia and who has twice been the chair of Demo­crats Abroad — thinks of it as a kind of be­witch­ing polit­ic­al nar­ciss­ism: “It’s not visu­al. It’s not: Look at me. It’s: Listen to me. No, be­lieve me. No, fol­low me.” In­deed, emo­tion — not just in­tel­li­gence — was very much in Cruz’s skill set. Ang­streich (who is Jew­ish) re­calls a de­bate that he was ar­guing in­volving the Holo­caust. Be­fore Ang­streich got up to speak, Cruz leaned over to him and whispered, “Be out­raged!”

Cruz also fre­quently re­lied on his now-well-worn ori­gin story in de­bates — his fath­er’s epic jour­ney from Cuban free­dom-fight­er to pen­ni­less for­eign­er in Amer­ica. “Every­body knew Ted Cruz’s fath­er’s story,” says Vin­nakota. “We could all re­cite it!” No one, I think, should be sur­prised to hear this nar­rat­ive to­night or in fu­ture GOP de­bates.

It’s also worth point­ing out — with Cruz fa­cing long odds in the GOP primar­ies, and with oth­er can­did­ates at to­night’s de­bate com­mand­ing a lot more at­ten­tion — that Cruz’s elo­quence proved to be a great equal­izer for him when his back was against the wall. “I’ve ex­per­i­enced and wit­nessed when Ted has pulled out de­bates purely at the force of his rhet­or­ic,” Vin­nakota says, re­mem­ber­ing one de­bate in par­tic­u­lar that he would ul­ti­mately win. The oth­er team, Vin­nakota re­calls, had “crushed Ted’s ar­gu­ment.” By the time Cruz ar­rived on­stage to speak a fi­nal time, the case was “dead on ar­rival.” “But Ted gave one of the most im­pas­sioned, flour­ished speeches. His fo­cused an­ger and the power of his rhet­or­ic just won over the crowd. If you were flow­ing the ar­gu­ment” — chart­ing the de­bate — “he didn’t say any­thing. You have to be im­pressed by it. He is a gif­ted, gif­ted speak­er.”

(RE­LATED: Chart­ing What Sep­ar­ated the Win­ners and Losers in Qual­i­fy­ing for the GOP De­bate)

Cruz’s ex­traordin­ary in­tel­li­gence was very much his call­ing card — on and off the de­bate stage. At one tour­na­ment, I re­call a dozen or so of us be­ing splayed out across twin beds, heads rest­ing against white plaster walls, drink­ing bottled beer. Young men (who con­sti­tuted most of that world) with loosened ties and wrinkled chi­nos sat rapt: Cruz, even then wear­ing boots-and-a-suit in that awk­ward way of all Texas politi­cians, was hold­ing court on Kant’s cat­egor­ic­al im­per­at­ive — his mor­al ab­so­lut­ism ap­par­ently already fully formed.

THE CHAL­LENGE FOR Cruz — which The New York Times high­lighted sev­er­al months ago in a piece about his de­bat­ing ca­reer — was that he wasn’t ne­ces­sar­ily likable. “I re­mem­ber him as a scary, driv­en ma­chine who fought a pro­trac­ted, bloody land war for total vic­tory,” says Ted Nib­lock, a Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity de­bater in Cruz’s year who is now gen­er­al coun­sel for a clean-en­ergy star­tup.

Which makes it all the more im­port­ant to bring up Cruz’s best friend and col­lege de­bate part­ner, Dav­id Pan­ton. Pan­ton, a Ja­maic­an stu­dent whom every­one re­mem­bers fondly, was the friendly George W. Bush to Cruz’s Dick Cheney.

“I re­mem­ber him as a scary, driv­en ma­chine who fought a pro­trac­ted, bloody land war for total vic­tory.”

“Pan­ton was the foil,” says Vin­nakota. “He was an equal mem­ber of the duo. But Dave was raised around need­ing to un­der­stand so­cial graces; he could pull off any­thing. It had the com­ple­ment­ary ef­fect of them work­ing really well to­geth­er.”

“No re­col­lec­tion of Cruz is com­plete without re­mem­ber­ing Dave Pan­ton,” agrees Nib­lock. “He was su­per-smart, funny, and even some­what self-ef­fa­cing. I have al­ways sus­pec­ted — al­though of course he could nev­er ad­mit it — that Pan­ton real­ized early on that the way to seem even more likable was to stand next to Cruz.”

(RE­LATED: The 10 Worst Mo­ments in Pres­id­en­tial De­bates)

Pan­ton, now the chair­man of his own private-equity firm, has re­mained a loy­al friend as Cruz’s polit­ic­al star­dom has taken off. (He did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.) Cruz and Pan­ton were both de­bate part­ners and room­mates. And the evid­ence for how well their part­ner­ship worked could be found in their suite at Prin­ceton, which was brim­ming over with “hard­ware” — the trophies, plaques, gavels (yes, really, hon­or­if­ic gavels), and oth­er awards garnered at de­bate tour­na­ments. The room was pos­it­ively drip­ping with si­lent ap­plause.

I once watched Cruz and Pan­ton slay a team from the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania in a fi­nal round. Penn ran what we called a “hy­po­thet­ic­al syl­lo­gism.” It went something like this: You’ve just gradu­ated, and be­fore you can even find a job, your col­lege alumni as­so­ci­ation asks you for money — don’t give them any. Ad­mit­tedly, it’s a silly case. Pan­ton gave the ex­pec­ted ar­gu­ments about how for­tu­nate we all were to have ac­cess to renowned in­sti­tu­tions and how we should not be in­grate elit­ists. But Cruz crushed it. He looked mean­ing­fully at the audi­ence. I don’t re­call his pre­cise words, but here’s how I re­mem­ber what he said: Even if — he paused and shook his head with a dis­be­liev­ing chuckle. Even if you think your col­lege did noth­ing for you, or in­sul­ted you — he paused again and then spit out: Leave a penny. He poin­ted down and to the side, as though he were point­ing at a lone, nasty penny. Tape a penny to the form and send it back. If you really hate them, then send a mes­sage.

The ques­tion is: After Cruz brings the pain, can he also chan­nel Pan­ton’s charm?

BACK IN 1991, a small war was waged in a crowded aud­it­or­i­um at Yale. The war came dis­guised as an elec­tion. At stake was the pres­id­ency of the Amer­ic­an Par­lia­ment­ary De­bate As­so­ci­ation. The con­tenders were Ted Cruz, Dae Lev­ine, and Ted Nib­lock.

They couldn’t have been more dif­fer­ent. Cruz was the straight-laced cham­pi­on look­ing for an­oth­er win. Lev­ine was the clev­er, al­tern­at­ive chick who oozed New York City cool — and who was los­ing to Cruz. Cue the wild card: Nib­lock entered the race as a Cruz protest can­did­ate — rep­res­ent­ing what he calls “an ir­rev­er­ent, coun­ter­cul­ture” style of de­bate that was frank but very ef­fect­ive.

“I was not as smart, com­mit­ted, or skilled as Ted was,” says Nib­lock. “I was com­pletely ran­dom and un­pre­dict­able. You can’t out­smart a truly crazy per­son.” That’s why a group of anti-Cruzniks draf­ted Nib­lock in­to the race. Sure it would be funny, but these folks also really did not like Cruz.

“He seemed to be the pre­sumptive win­ner,” says Nib­lock. “This was on top of his fre­quent tour­na­ment vic­tor­ies, which were earned in the most grind­ing, meth­od­ic­al, joy­less way pos­sible. This might be my biggest prob­lem with him: He took all the fun out of it. He pre­pared and pre­pared, came to the tour­na­ment on the week­end, ex­ecuted his plan, and then went back to Prin­ceton to take the fun out of something else.”

It was a crazy day — Nib­lock’s bizarre, plat­form­less entry seemed some­how ex­hil­ar­at­ing. Vot­ing for him was like break­ing the rules, free-fall­ing through an elec­tion that was dazzlingly un­im­port­ant to just about every­one but Cruz. The Columbia team stood be­hind our own and backed Lev­ine, but Nib­lock had de­livered a shot of mad­ness to Cruz’s meth­od. “My only elect­able qual­ity was that I was not Ted Cruz,” says Nib­lock.

Ul­ti­mately, gid­di­ness and Nib­lock pre­vailed. Lev­ine and Cruz were co-vice-pres­id­ents. It is, to the best of our col­lect­ive know­ledge, the last elec­tion Cruz ever lost. “I think he’s spent his whole life try­ing to make sure he doesn’t lose an­oth­er elec­tion,” says Lev­ine. Nib­lock agrees. “Every mo­ment of his pub­lic life has been care­fully cal­cu­lated to bring him to this,” he says. “And if Sen­at­or Cruz has de­cided he wants to be pres­id­ent, he has a plan.”

He has a plan: Every­one I in­ter­viewed for this art­icle is sol­id on this point. We de­baters un­der­stand how he thinks — how he sees a mul­ti­tude of situ­ations and con­sequences un­fold­ing in his mind’s eye. He’s a politi­cian: It is all stage time now. And start­ing to­night, a lot will de­pend on just how well he de­bates.

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