Mike Lee Is Alfred to Ted Cruz’s Batman

The junior senator from Utah is part mentor, part caretaker, and part booster to the junior senator from Texas.

US Senator Ted Cruz R-TX, speaks as Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, looks on during a press conference on defunding "Obamacare" on the Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 13, 2013. Even as he set out to woo lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Republican foes, President Obama called for an approach that restores fiscal stability but also protects healthcare for the poor and the elderly and shields the middle class. 
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Ben Terris
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Ben Terris
Oct. 10, 2013, 5 p.m.

Ted Cruz needed his se­cur­ity blanket. It was 2:30 a.m. and, bleary-eyed from speak­ing for the bet­ter part of 12 hours on the Sen­ate floor in an in­dict­ment of Obama­care — re­plete with ref­er­ences to Green Eggs and Ham, Star Wars, White Castle, and Duck Dyn­asty — the ju­ni­or sen­at­or from Texas handed it off to the ju­ni­or sen­at­or from Utah, Mike Lee.

Stand­ing in front of a mostly empty cham­ber, his face glisten­ing un­der the lights, Lee made no ref­er­ences to Dr. Seuss or mini­ature, square-shaped bur­gers: It was a 45-minute so­li­lo­quy on con­sti­tu­tion­al law.

“Quite simply, it was ex­traordin­ary,” Cruz says today. He was talk­ing not just about the abil­ity of his best friend in the Sen­ate to speak ex­tem­por­an­eously about com­plex jur­is­pru­dence, but also about Lee’s un­waver­ing sup­port. Like a proud par­ent at the world’s most in­ter­min­able soc­cer game, the Uta­han stayed on the floor for the en­tire 21 hours, even speak­ing for al­most four hours him­self when his col­league most needed the help.

It’s easy to see the re­la­tion­ship between Cruz and Lee as a liber­tari­an Bat­man and Robin. The two have been joined at the hip in the quest to de­fund Obama­care. But Lee is more than just a sidekick to the so-called wacko bird from the Lone Star State. Yes, Cruz loves the spot­light and knows how to make the most of it, while Lee can come across as a law pro­fess­or will­ing to scare you, work you, and bore you to death. Part ment­or, part guid­ing force, part emo­tion­al sup­port­er, Lee is more like Cruz’s Al­fred Penny­worth. He helped set the stage for Cruz to take on his star­ring role.

Cruz met Lee in 2010 at a meet­ing of the Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety in Wash­ing­ton and quickly real­ized the two were “kindred spir­its.” Lee had just been elec­ted to his first Sen­ate term. He en­cour­aged Cruz to run in Texas and went on to be­come one of Cruz’s earli­est en­dors­ers. “I was quite lit­er­ally at 2 per­cent in the polls,” Cruz said in an in­ter­view in his of­fice. “Us­ing stand­ard polit­ic­al met­rics, Mike was crazy to sup­port me at that point.”

Lee grew up well con­nec­ted polit­ic­ally — an in­sider, des­pite his tea-party mantle today. Three of his second cous­ins have been elec­ted to the Sen­ate; his fath­er, Rex Lee, was so­li­cit­or gen­er­al for Pres­id­ent Re­agan, and the young­er Lee spent much of his child­hood in North­ern Vir­gin­ia with neigh­bors such as the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Vir­gin­ia. In Lee’s Mor­mon faith, home teach­ers help and sup­port fam­il­ies; the teach­er as­signed to Lee’s fam­ily turned out to be Sen. Harry Re­id. (One time, Re­id locked Lee in a gar­age as a prac­tic­al joke, mak­ing for the per­fect ori­gin story if you’re look­ing for one.) But Lee has made it quite clear he is will­ing to do things that by stand­ard polit­ic­al met­rics are in­ad­vis­able.

Lee was the ori­gin­al tea-party hero, reach­ing the Sen­ate by out­flank­ing Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Bob Ben­nett on the right. In one of his weekly ad­dresses, Pres­id­ent Obama called Lee out (al­though not by name) for “gum­ming up the works for the whole coun­try.” But it wasn’t un­til Cruz — a hyp­ber­bol­ic and cap­tiv­at­ing show­man — came to Wash­ing­ton in 2012 that someone else was around who could take that mes­sage and use it to be­come a na­tion­al fig­ure.

Be­fore Cruz took over the con­ver­sa­tion, Lee laid the ground­work. Be­cause, while much of the vit­ri­ol from the left (and the cen­ter) is dir­ec­ted at Cruz, Lee is the true ar­chi­tect of the de­fund-Obama­care op­er­a­tion. It was Lee who in Ju­ly draf­ted a let­ter to Re­id that began the ef­fort to link fund­ing of the health care law to the pas­sage of a short-term budget bill. At the time, Lee took to the Sen­ate floor to push the ap­proach, made the rounds on tele­vi­sion to pitch it to the Amer­ic­an people, and ini­tially got 17 GOP sen­at­ors to sign the let­ter. When lead­er­ship didn’t ap­prove of the plan, a num­ber of sen­at­ors re­moved their sig­na­tures. “It be­came clear that us­ing the tra­di­tion­al rules of Wash­ing­ton would not per­suade our col­leagues,” Cruz said. “The only hope was to take it dir­ectly to the Amer­ic­an people.”

This was a job for a flashy, smooth-talk­ing, boot-wear­ing per­former, not a quiet schol­ar. “Mike un­der­stands when it’s time to speak up and when it’s time to be in a sup­port role,” said Spen­cer Stokes, his former chief of staff. Be­fore 2012, Lee would likely be talk­ing to any­one and every­one he could (“I don’t think we’ve turned down a me­dia re­quest,” Stokes was quoted in The Wash­ing­ton Post as say­ing shortly after Lee was elec­ted). Re­cently, Lee has been let­ting Cruz do the talk­ing, turn­ing down an in­ter­view re­quest from Na­tion­al Journ­al.

For Cruz, it’s a high-risk, high-re­ward po­s­i­tion. It’s why people can ima­gine him either run­ning for pres­id­ent in 2016 or flam­ing out long be­fore a primary. Lee by all ac­counts doesn’t have any designs on high­er of­fice; he’s happy in Wayne Man­or. Bat­man may get the glory, but Al­fred’s chances of sur­viv­al over the long haul are ex­po­nen­tially bet­ter. Even Cruz ad­mits he has been something of an un­in­ten­tion­al shield for his friend. “It does seem that some of the Demo­crats have chosen to dir­ect a sig­ni­fic­ant part of their an­im­os­ity at me.”

Which, of course, is not to say that Lee doesn’t face any con­sequences. A statewide poll this week found that 57 per­cent of Uta­hans want him to be more con­cili­at­ory on budget is­sues, ac­cord­ing to The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s aid­ing Cruz in the fight that has grown in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar. But you can al­most ima­gine Lee whis­per­ing in­to Cruz’s ear on the Sen­ate floor. “They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Bat­man. He can be the out­cast. He can make the choice that no one else can make — the right choice.”

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