Who would be a more dangerous president: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? This ghastly parlor game lacks a satisfying answer; either would be toxic for America. That the question is not fanciful makes it all the more terrifying.
Trump’s deficiencies are evident, increasingly so. He is a demagogue and a bully. He lacks both preparation for the office and ideological convictions. He has thought deeply about . . . nothing, except how to promote Donald Trump.
Such bluster masks — barely — a yawning insecurity. A man confident in his intellect would not be so compelled to announce how smart he is or to boast of his Ivy League pedigree. Trump craves adulation; poll numbers are his crack. He seems incapable of tolerating criticism or dissent.
These traits are dangerous in a president, a post for which character and temperament are paramount concerns. As much as Trump touts his negotiating skills and managerial bona fides, it is difficult — no, make that scary — to imagine him dealing with world leaders or congressional counterparts.
Cruz is a different, and in many ways more dangerous, character. Where Trump is emotional and impulsive, the first-term Texas senator is contained and methodical. Contrast Cruz’s canny embrace of Trump, his restraint in responding to Trump’s provocations, with Trump’s explosiveness.
Where Trump needs the ego balm of adoring masses, Cruz couldn’t care less what others think of him, except to the extent it might interfere with his ability to achieve his end. Just ask the Senate colleagues who join in remarkable, scarcely contained bipartisan loathing of the man.
Where Trump is driven to boast about his intelligence, Cruz remains quietly self-confident about his far superior intellect. You don’t hear him crowing about his Supreme Court clerkship or Harvard Law degree. Trump wants to show you how many magazine covers have featured him. Cruz simply wants to amass, and exercise, power. Publicity is an end in itself for Trump, a means to an end for Cruz.
These comparisons might tip the scale in Cruz’s favor if one were forced to choose. Between Trump and Cruz, the finger-on-the-nuclear-button contest goes to Cruz. Of the two, he is the more emotionally stable.
Yet, in a post-Cold War setting, that cannot be the end of the discussion, which brings me back to the ways in which Cruz is more dangerous than Trump.
First, although neither man is particularly constrained by truth or facts, Cruz is even more ruthless and cutthroat. Cruz is best- known for his self-interested willingness to shut down the government over his pique du jour.
But he revealed his true character even earlier in his Senate tenure when he went after former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary. In a manner that evoked the worst of Joseph McCarthy, Cruz smeared Hagel with unsupported insinuations that the nominee received money from foreign governments or extremist groups. There seems to be no argument too low for him to make — for example, his recent, four-Pinocchio claim that “the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats.”
Second, while Trump’s efforts are in the service of self-promotion, Cruz’s are all that plus the implementation of an extreme-right ideology. The fact that senators of both parties despise him has tended to obscure the substantive threat he poses to the country.
At the same time, Trump’s ascendancy and the outrageousness of his pronouncements have made Cruz appear like the more reasonable alternative. As Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) told me in an interview for Washington Post Live, “I don’t think six months ago anybody would have thought that Ted Cruz was mainstream. . . . Trump has made Cruz mainstream.”
In fact, Cruz is by far the more doctrinaire and ideologically extreme. You can see Trump making a deal — on taxes, on funding Planned Parenthood, on implementing Obamacare, you name it. Cruz, not so much. Jeffrey Toobin’s 2014 New Yorker profile of Cruz was fittingly titled “The Absolutist.”
He is so incensed by the “judicial tyranny” of Supreme Court rulings on Obamacare and same-sex marriage that he wants a constitutional amendment to subject Supreme Court justices to retention elections, a plan contrary to the framers’ vision of judicial independence. “Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history,” Cruz told Sean Hannity after the court’s rulings in the summer. Really? Pearl Harbor? 9/11? Dred Scott?
I can’t believe I’m saying this. But I might prefer President Trump.
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