On Meet the Press Sunday, Donald Trump said, “I mean, the biggest problem [Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.)] has, he’s a nasty guy and nobody likes him. Not one Republican senator, he works with them every day, not one Republican senator has endorsed Ted Cruz. I mean, when you think of it, that’s actually a shocking thing to believe. . . .” He’s got a point, and moreover, highlights why in their zest to get rid of Trump too many staunch conservatives are looking to the wrong alternative.
Cruz apologists say he is unliked in the Senate because he’s such a principled, devoted, sincere conservative. Oh, puleez. There are wonderfully principled conservatives — Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) come to mind. They are not backing him; no one in the Senate is. For some, it is because in a world of opportunists he is the worst of the worst. Whether exploiting the shutdown to claim only he was a true believer in getting rid of Obamacare or flip-flopping like a dead fish on national security matters so as to smear sincere advocates of a strong national security and ingratiate himself with anti-interventionists, his only principle is self-advancement. And in that regard, he’s not an alternative to Trump, but his twin.
Those who defend Cruz as an arch-conservative implicitly must argue he was not serious about certain issues (e.g., legalization of illegal immigrants, no ground troops to defeat the Islamic State). Only if he is disingenuous can he be a “real” conservative.
This is not simply a character flaw for Cruz, although it certainly is. (As a man motivated by unbridled self-interest Cruz undercuts his supporters’ critiques of Trump, whom they rightly slam for lack of intellectual consistency.) Cruz’s lack of inner core is an impediment to him besting Trump in the primaries. If the polls are correct — a big if — Iowa voters are discovering that sooner than others.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is certainly right to portray Cruz as “calculating.” In the year of the un-politician, Cruz seems the most politically calculating of them all. Voters looking for authenticity can certainly spot the man with two Ivy League degrees, a wife who worked on Wall Street and experience as a Supreme Court litigator as anything but the anti-elitist, anti-insider he claims to be. There is nothing wrong with being a highly educated man steeped in federal government service; what is wrong is pretending not to be. At least Trump is proud to be a gauche billionaire.
The reason why it is entirely logical for mainstream conservatives to reject him every much as they reject Trump is simple: He has Trump’s faults and more. Like Trump, he plays the xenophobe card. Like Trump, he peddles policy piffle. (End the IRS! Make the sand glow!) Like Trump, his understanding of foreign policy is daft. Distorted by his ideological lens, Cruz — like Trump — looks with admiration at strong men like Moammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad.
But Cruz in some respects is worse on national security. He rejects the National Security Agency, conning the voters that its work amounts to listening into your phone calls. He’s voted to fund defense at lower levels than President Obama and voted against defense authorization in wartime because he wants to make sure American jihadists are not kept at Guantanamo Bay. (Why not?)
And Cruz — here is where experienced Washington hands and Trump both have it right — is entirely unable to work with others, inspire loyalty from colleagues and respect from adversaries. He defines gridlock and incivility. With Trump, he might be persuaded on pragmatic grounds to move on major legislation; Cruz never will because he derides consensus. In any argument, he believes whichever position he assumes is the only true and decent stance; all others are squishes, defenders of illegal conduct or whatever slur comes to mind. (Only President Obama is less gracious toward foes and less capable of forging agreement.) Cruz seems to lack a fundamental understanding that government is there to protect and improve the lives of citizens, not a forum for confrontation for confrontation’s sake. His zeal for discrediting opponents is unmatched by his concern for policy solutions to our serious problems.
If then, you are a hawk or a believer in functioning government or insistent that good character is a requirement for the presidency, Cruz is no better, and in some cases, worse than Trump. This is not an argument for Trump. One can say flatly, no conservative or other American should vote for Trump, who is so abjectly unqualified and unfit for the presidency. (Frankly if conservative intellectuals really wanted to stop Trump they would flat-out say they would not vote for him. Since they do not, one finds it hard to take their indignation over Trump all that seriously.) But neither is this to say Cruz is acceptable. Republicans — insiders, mainstreamers, establishment types — whoever you are –do not need to be passive when faced with adversity.
No, it’s the perfect opportunity to reject Trump and Cruz. The United States does not need Trump’s brand of Caesarism, nor Cruz’s imperiousness. If one wants a reasonably consistent conservative, a responsible hawk devoted to serving others, engrossed by policy and effective at dealing with others, don’t expect Cruz to be any better than Trump. And Cruz isn’t even entertaining.