10 questions for Ted Cruz

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas grew famous nationally through his zealous attacks on President Obama's health law. Shortly after entering the 2016 Republican presidential race, Cruz sat down with me at Ninfa's, one of his favorite Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.

Harwood: First of all, what happened to you in your childhood that you do not like guacamole avocado?

Cruz: My Dad grew up with an avocado tree in his backyard. My entire family, my wife and daughters, they love avocado. I may well be allergic. It makes me physically sick.

Harwood: You made a comment about how used to like rock music, and then your tastes changed after 9/11. What music did you like?

Cruz: I grew up listening to classic rock—the Kinks, Genesis, The Who, Pink Floyd. Saw Pink Floyd in concert in Houston—I think it would've been 1988 in the Astrodome—which was an amazing concert. For everyone trying to read broad political commentary in there, there isn't any. It's just simply I had the reaction (after 9/11) that I said, "I like how country's responding." And so I shifted over and started listening to country.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on "Squawk Box"
Stefanie Smith | CNBC
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on "Squawk Box"

Harwood: The first president of your adulthood was a Texan, George H. W. Bush. What is your evaluation of his presidency now?

Cruz: I think he did an effective job when it came to managing the demise of the Soviet Union. He was the right person at the right time. Domestically, I disagree with what he did. When you tell the American people, "Read my lips. No new taxes," that should mean no new taxes. That was a mistake. And it's a mistake that cost him the election.

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Harwood: You worked for his son. Was he right to expand Medicare to cover prescription drugs?

Cruz: That was a policy fight I was not engaged in at the time. I'll tell you what wasn't right. When George W. Bush entered office, the national debt was $5 trillion. When he left, it was $10 trillion. I think the administration spent too much money. Now, I also think you've got to give George W. Bush some real credit—he showed remarkable courage in the beginning of the second term taking on Social Security reform and personal accounts. It was the right thing to do. Sadly, congressional Republicans ran to the hills and abandoned him.

Harwood: A third Texas president, L.B.J., created Medicare in the mid-'60s. Your hero Ronald Reagan campaigned vigorously against that, saying it would lead to socialized medicine, would end liberty in the United States. Who was right: L.B.J. or Reagan?

Cruz: It's not worth tilting at windmills. I don't know. I wasn't alive then. What I do know is that today, we have got to preserve and reform Medicare. There is a broad, universal consensus that Medicare is a fundamental bulwark of our society. Look, it's one thing to have asked 50 years ago should we have created it. It's another thing when you have a generation of seniors who paid into it 30, 40, 50 years who have been made promises. We need to honor those promises.

Harwood: You announced your campaign at Liberty University. You're appealing to Libertarians. The Libertarian Party platform in 2012 calls for Social Security to be phased out. Are they wrong as a matter of philosophy?

Cruz: Oh, I understand why they call for that. But I don't agree with them. What I would like to see is several things. Number one, for those on Social Security or near retirement, no changes whatsoever. Honor the commitments. But for younger people, people in my generation, we should gradually increase the retirement age. Secondly we need to change the rate of growth of Social Security benefits so they match inflation rather than exceed inflation. Those two reforms on their own take Social Security from bankruptcy into solvency. But the third piece, and it's what Bush fought for, is personal accounts. I think it is transformative to allow younger workers to put a portion of their taxes into a personal account that they own, that they control, and that they can pass onto their heirs.

Harwood: I read an anecdote that said you asked a friend at Harvard Law School her IQ, and then when she didn't know her IQ, asked her SAT score. What was that about?

Cruz: That was a silly story that appeared in a magazine. I have no recollection of ever having had any such conversation. So, I can't respond.

Harwood: And the idea that you wouldn't study with anybody who didn't go to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton?

Cruz: Now that's just a complete lie. It's actually the same magazine, which was one of the more noxious hatchet jobs. The facts are, my study group consisted of three people: My college roommate, who did go to Princeton with me, and one other fellow named Jeff who went to Northwestern. So not only is that claim a lie, but we actually didn't have anyone in the study group who did go to Harvard or Yale. It's a purely made-up lie. But it gets repeated on the internet all the time because it's the sort of thing that even if it's not true, people want it to be true.

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Harwood: When I asked a couple of other campaigns, "What would you ask him if you were me?" they said, "Ask him to name his biggest accomplishment." And the reason they said that was, "He doesn't have any." What is your yardstick for when you're succeeding, as opposed to tilting at windmills, getting publicity, all that?

Cruz: What I have endeavored to do in my time in the Senate is to stand up and lead on the great issues of the day. People say, "Well, gosh, you haven't succeeded in repealing Obamacare." That is true. We haven't succeeded yet. But any student of military history knows that great wars are typically not won in a single skirmish. Although we did not defeat Obamacare and take it down in October of 2013, I believe that fight set the predicate. I think we built the foundation for repealing Obamacare.

Harwood: You've said a few things that don't necessarily comport with the facts, like, "125,000 I.R.S. agents, send 'em to the border." They've only got 25,000 agents or something like. You've talked about the job-killing nature of Obamacare. We're adding jobs at a very healthy clip right now. Why shouldn't somebody listen to you and say, "The guy'll just say anything - doesn't have to be true"?

Cruz: There is a game that is played by left-wing editorial writers. It's this new species of yellow journalism called politi-fact. Colloquially I was referring to all the employees as agents.

That particular stat is in a joke I used. So, they're literally fact-checking a joke. I say that explicitly tongue in cheek.

The second point is more significant. You talked about the job creation that has occurred. The simple reality is millions of Americans are hurting right now under the Obama economy. Yes, some jobs are being created, but not nearly as many have been destroyed. The rich, the top 1% today earn a higher share of our income than any year since 1928.

Big business does great with big government. It gets in bed with big government. Median wages have stagnated. So, if you're a single mom waiting tables, if you're a teenage immigrant washing dishes like my dad was when he came from Cuba to America, your life under the Obama economy has gotten harder and harder and harder.