In a truly epic interview with Slate last week, Newt Gingrich said, “I think we need somebody — and both Cruz and Trump fit this — who is going to break up the old order and insist on real change.” Gingrich is almost certainly right that this is what Donald Trump and Ted Cruz’s supporters think they’d get with their chosen candidates. But if we put aside Trump for a moment, what is it that those who back Cruz are after? And if it’s breaking up the old order and insisting on real change, is that what they’re going to get?
There’s no doubt that Cruz has presented himself as the scourge of the establishment, which in many ways he has been. After all, he called Mitch McConnell a liar on the floor of the Senate, he pushed for a government shutdown his party leaders knew would fail, and since he arrived in Washington three years ago, he has never missed an opportunity to shake his fist at the powers-that-be.
But that’s who Ted Cruz was as a senator. It was made possible by a very particular situation, one in which he was part of the opposition. If you’re president, you can’t be a rebel fighting against the powerful, because you’re the most powerful person there is. And it isn’t as though rebellion against the establishment is bred deep in Cruz’s bones. We’re talking about a guy who went to Princeton and Harvard Law, then was a lawyer in private practice, then served in the Bush administration, before becoming solicitor general of Texas. He became an anti-establishment figure when he got to Washington in 2013 because he’s a smart and ambitious politician. He correctly saw rebellion as a route to far more prominence than a first-term senator could hope for otherwise.
But let’s imagine that Cruz’s contempt for business as usual is sincere. What, exactly, is his plan to break up the old order and bring change?
Well, let’s see. Does Cruz have a plan to curb the power of corporate lobbyists and special interests over legislation? No, that doesn’t seem to be part of his agenda. Does he want to reduce the influence of big money? Surely you jest.
So what is the nature of the problem Cruz sees in Washington? If you go to the part of his website titled “Rein in Washington,” you’ll find that his plan consists of abolishing the IRS, cutting domestic spending, and passing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The first is too stupid to even bother with (who’s going to collect taxes?), and the second and third are standard Republican ideas shared even by — cover the children’s ears — the establishment!
The truth is that almost all of the policies Ted Cruz would pursue are exactly those that would have been pursued by Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or any of the other Republicans who ran for president. Tax cuts for the wealthy? Oh yeah. Fewer regulations for corporations? Right on. No action on climate change? Yes, sir. Boost military spending? You know it. Right-wing judges? You betcha. Continue the assault on collective bargaining? No doubt.
They’d all do those things because they’re all Republicans who share conservative ideas. The arguments between the establishment and the rebels like Cruz were always about tactics, not ideology. They all wanted to repeal ObamaCare; the difference was that people like Cruz wanted to shut down the government in a vain attempt to make it happen, while people like McConnell and John Boehner thought that wouldn’t work. The goals were never in question.
So if you asked Cruz’s supporters exactly what kind of establishment-slaying program they think Cruz would undertake as president, I suspect they’d have no idea how to respond. That’s because being anti-establishment in the way Republicans conceive of it required being on the outside. It was a matter of attitude, not agenda.
Someone like Bernie Sanders may have a list of things he’d like to do in order to fight the establishment, like public financing of congressional campaigns and overturning Citizens United. But the biggest complaint rank-and-file Republicans have about their party leaders is that they’ve been ineffectual, promising things they couldn’t deliver. The problem for a president is that their frustration speaks to the dynamics of an opposition faced with a president from the other party. The reason Republicans didn’t repeal ObamaCare or throw out all the foreigners wasn’t that they lacked the intestinal fortitude someone like Ted Cruz possesses. It was because Barack Obama was president. The Republican establishment’s real sin was that despite having control of Congress, they couldn’t make Obama disappear.
Once a Republican becomes president, that won’t be so much of a problem. Which is why, even though Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz may despise each other personally, if Cruz were president they’d get along just fine. McConnell would pass bills providing for all the things Republicans want, Cruz would sign them, and then everybody would clap each other heartily on the back, secure in the knowledge that they were turning America into a paradise of freedom and opportunity.
If that vision warms your heart, then it’s perfectly fine to vote for Ted Cruz. Just don’t think that he’s going to transform Washington into something fundamentally different than it is now.