Among some people, the new parlor game is choosing who would make the worst president: Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. This is not a lady-or-the-tiger dilemma, but a tiger-or-tiger one. The choice is between a fiercely friendless reactionary and a bombastic, thoroughly dishonest egomaniac. You pick.
My choice is Trump. He wins in this close and ugly race even though I consulted a conservative lawyer who knows Cruz and he, to my surprise, chose the senator from Texas. He cited Cruz’s cramped interpretation of the Constitution — and a personality approximating that of a wolverine.
The fact that Cruz is liked by few people who know him in Washington is deeply troubling. He is not seeking to be an astronaut who would spend the next four years alone in space but shooting for the White House where he would be politician in chief. As president, he would forever be at odds with Congress. We have had enough of that already.
The death of Nancy Reagan harkened us back to an era when politicians had opponents, not enemies, and they actually consorted with people with whom they disagreed. The ultimate example of the schmooze as an instrument of government is the amicable relationship enjoyed by Ronald Reagan and Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill, the conservative Republican president and the liberal Democratic House speaker. It’s a bygone age and Cruz, of all people, will not revive it.
Still, Trump strikes me as the more dangerous candidate. I don’t think Cruz would ever have sputtered such contempt for the rule of law as Trump did when he said he would revive torture in all its colorful aspects — waterboarding being the least of it. He also said he would compel its use even though it was against the law and the military might, as it should, refuse to follow his order. What would he do then, he was asked at the most recent Republican debate?
“They won’t refuse,” Trump said. “They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.”
“I’m a leader,” he added a moment later. “I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”
Trump believes that the time he spent as a kid in military school was the equivalent of military service. If so, he missed the lecture I got in basic training on how we were under no obligation to follow an illegal order. This lesson had to be repeated a number of times because not every soldier understood that even his drill sergeant had to respect the Constitution and the laws of the land.
This is bedrock stuff. We settled it back in the Nixon days. No president is above the law. He cannot use his office and his authority to protect lawbreakers and cover up a crime, and he cannot, as Richard Nixon did, consider the presidency and the law as synonymous.
Trump has since backed off his enthusiastic endorsement of torture and his willingness to flout the law. But he cannot recant his florid-faced insistence that the law is what he says it is. Nor do I accept the assurance of his defenders that these are silly debate moments that would never be repeated in the solemnity of the White House. The argument that the Mr. Hyde of the campaign trail would become the Dr. Jekyll of the Oval Office is the true triumph of hope over common sense. History warns that the man may well be the monster he pretends to be. In general, power does not humble.
Cruz, on the other hand, is precisely who he says he is. His legal philosophy is parched and constricted, his Constitution, like the Ten Commandments themselves, a sacred document divinely authored. It is open to amendment, but not interpretation.
Cruz’s true danger is his zealotry. When he cannot persuade, he obstructs. He is a man of heroic petulance, unsuited in manner for the presidency, but not by intellect. Still, someone who interprets the Constitution severely has to be preferred to someone who does not take it into account at all.
The system has failed us. Either Trump or Cruz is likely going to be the Republican nominee and all that would stand between him and the White House is a single person, probably Hillary Clinton, and the law of averages: no indictment, no slip in the bathtub, nothing like that. The choice, quite literally this time, is between the lady and the tiger. We are one door away from disaster.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.