The Republican candidate field has been narrowed down, at last, to a somewhat manageable number.
So although Saturday night’s debate was colossally stupid – I’m sorry to have to be so blunt – I don’t think it really did any lasting damage.
In discussing the candidates, I’ll get out of the way the ones who won’t be making it to Cleveland. The one who wasn’t on the stage (although I agree she should have been), Carly Fiorina. John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Jeb!. Ben Carson.
In New Hampshire, the establishment “moderates” (Kasich, Christie, Jeb!) may get a little bounce. But New Hampshire’s not a guide to what the rest of America will have to say. I’m not sure the GOP leadership understands that it isn’t 2012 anymore, and Republican voters aren’t going to fall in line behind whichever candidate the GOP leadership can most comfortably think of as its “Mitt Romney” this time around.
The voters just aren’t going to do that. I don’t know if we’ll see a third party effort or not, but I do know that there are enough voters disgusted with the old-consensus GOP that they’re ready to not check anyone in the “President” block, and take their chances on what comes next instead.
The choices they are offered are too limiting. They won’t keep voting “for” something they know is actively harming them, just because that may be a vote “against” something that will bring the same harm harder and faster. Having only those choices is no longer acceptable. It’s imperative, instead, to break the whole framework and reconstitute it.
There are unquestionably enough disgusted voters out there to lose this election for an old-consensus Republican in 2016.
And it’s in that light that we have to evaluate the top three candidates. Donald Trump is the standard-bearer of a particular type of voter, in my view. It’s the voter who is quite properly revolted by the way government has been treating him for the last several decades – but who also has unrealistic expectations about government.
The Donald and his voters
Government can’t manage the economy. It can’t conserve wealth – the definition Trump gave last night when asked why he is a true “conservative” – or create jobs. Government can set favorable conditions for entrepreneurship, with sound currency and property laws, and severe limits on regulation. But it can’t go about managing the economy the way a CEO manages his business.
Government is also inherently about our moral ideas for how big it should be. A CEO like Trump adapts to government-ordered conditions he is not ultimately responsible for. A political leader doesn’t have that luxury – unless he’s a demagogue and hypocrite, and I don’t believe Trump is either one.
But Trump is not a systematic political thinker either. He doesn’t have the temperament or perspective for wrestling, in a wise and serious way, with the real problems now destroying our republic, which are precisely those moral problems of government size and purpose. He will instead try to simply set rules – without addressing the underlying, government-caused conditions that are a political nightmare to address – and demand that everyone live by them.
That’s what a CEO would do to manage his enterprise. And that’s great for a CEO, whose responsibility is to investors and shareholders for the return on private capital. You take the conditions that are too hard to change as givens, and find ways to make money anyway.
But that’s not a restoration of principled, ordered liberty, which is what the business of our government should be. It’s not what America needs. America needs to change in ways different from how a Trump presidency would change us.
Trump is right about some important things, and he is doing the country a great service by forcing the door open for a serious challenge to the old political consensus.
And I personally get a kick out of him. I don’t hate any of the GOP candidates, for that matter, and I find it a condemnation of the state of mind we’ve let ourselves get into today, that so many people are running around hating on one candidate or another. People who angrily denounce Ted Cruz as the devil incarnate have a personal problem. I’m serious. That’s intemperate nonsense. The same is true of people who think Marco Rubio is a sleaze-ball.
But Trump’s not the correct fit for the crisis we find ourselves in today.
Cruz and Rubio
Whether you think Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio is the correct fit depends on how you see the crisis, I think. Quite honestly, I don’t know that anyone is an exactly correct fit. For me, Cruz comes the closest, and that’s for three reasons.
Cruz is a student of the philosophy of limited government. He’s already thinking about the hard stuff. We can’t tweak our way out of the mess we’re in. We have to get back to fundamental issues of what government should really be in our lives, and Cruz doesn’t cater to the sloppy mindset that says that’s too abstract to take on. Taking it on is the only thing that will get us back on the right road.
Cruz fights. That’s what Lincoln said of Grant: “I cannot spare this man – he fights.” We may not all agree on where or how Cruz has chosen to fight, up to now. But it’s much easier to throw stones from the outside than it is to run for Senate yourself and then show us all how it’s done. Out of the top GOP candidates in the race, Cruz is the one we have reason to expect will not simply knuckle under to the old consensus.
(Trump will knuckle, where the political outcome isn’t important to him – which includes foundational limited-government issues like rolling back the juggernaut of health care regulation, and protecting freedom of conscience against social-change fascism.)
Cruz is a strategist – and a strategist about politics and government, something Trump and Rubio are not. Trump is a deal-maker. Rubio is a pundit and tactician. Cruz speaks and thinks like a strategist with a vision for what the American ship of state should look like, and what he would do to get from here to there.
His basic mindset as a strategist is also detectable in what he says about foreign policy. (He does use the expression “carpet bombing” incorrectly, but it’s clear that that’s not because he actually wants to carpet-bomb anyone. Carpet bombing isn’t strategy, in any case; it’s a campaign method.)
Out of all the candidates, I perceive Cruz to be one of three – the other two are Carson and Fiorina – who see accurately that the time for old-consensus approaches to American security policy is past. The vector map of the globe has already changed. We can no longer do the pat things that guys like Jeb! and Kasich talk about doing.
These three characteristics are the main ways Cruz differs from Rubio. I think Rubio does very much believe in his positions, and I perceive him to be a man of intelligence and good character trying to do his best. I don’t think he’s just a guy who talks a good game.
But when a political problem looms, he doesn’t see it through the lens of strategy and a determination to fight through to a goal. He accepts limitations that a more original strategist will refuse to accept. In the end, he’s going to go the conventional route.
The nature of the crisis
That’s not always bad. But in our current republican crisis, we can’t afford it. This judgment, right here, is what will make or break the political divide on the right, in this watershed election year.
If you don’t agree that the crisis cannot be addressed adequately by new, high-handed management (Trump) or a superficial renewal of vows (Rubio), then you won’t see the need for what Cruz brings to the table.
I do see the crisis as that significant. We need a strategist and fighter whose focus is on the philosophy of government.
What I don’t fool myself about is whether even that will be enough. There may be no way to navigate without pain to a renewed, strengthened footing for liberty. America’s problems of character are sapping us of hope as surely as the heavy hand of government is.
We will not fix all our problems merely by electing a particular person this November. We can be certain, of course, that electing either of the Democrats, or one of the old-consensus Republicans, would keep us on the same road to destruction, the difference lying only in how fast we traveled it. Electing Trump would move us down a parallel path.
But no converse certainties come with electing a fighter for limited government. It would be nice if Cruz had the magical aura of Reagan about him, to make the choice easier for a lot of people. But it would also be nice if we were the American people we were in 1980.
We’re not. We are where we are, and it’s not an option to start out from anywhere else. In 2016, we are staring the mess of a hybrid old consensus in the face, and the real question for our minds is whether we think history is a closed loop or not. If we choose life, instead of death, and we fight for it, is there any hope of actually getting it? Or are we fated to see American liberty go down with a sinking ship?
Choosing the old consensus is choosing death. But history is not a closed loop, and America has always beaten its odds. I say we will get life, if we choose it.