Senator Cruz represents no new thinking on the part of the GOP—quite the contrary, his whole public persona is based on amplifying the existing Republican stereotype. He’s the perfect movement conservative: articulate, combative, dramatic, but not particularly effective. He frames the conflicts he rides into as showdowns between freedom and socialism—Obama “is moving us day-by-day to being closer to a European socialist nation,” he once said—or, as in the Hagel confirmation hearings, between muscular patriotism and un-American subversion.
He’s avoided taking a clear stand on foreign policy, signaling at times that he thinks Obama isn’t aggressive enough in places like Syria—“We need to be developing a clear, practical plan to go in, locate the [chemical] weapons, secure or destroy them, and then get out. The United States should be firmly in the lead to make sure the job is done right,” he said in June—at other times saying that America should not act as “al-Qaeda’s air force.” He’s a hawk who will strike a dovish pose if a particular intervention, proposed by a Democratic president, isn’t popular.
This buys him some credit with young Ron/Rand Paul supporters who want to think the best of him because they like his posturing on domestic issues, but in an important sense he’s more dangerous to noninterventionists than an open enemy like John McCain or Lindsey Graham is, since Cruz encourages the antiwar right to be complacent and overlook the differences between someone who’s willing to stick his neck out on foreign policy—as both the former congressman and the present senator Paul have been willing to do—and someone whose foreign policy is basically defined by his Republican partisanship. Cruz deserves credit for the good things he’s done, including joining Senator Paul’s drone filibuster, but that credit should not extend to making any mistake about the man’s fundamental character.
Paul’s filibuster was also symbolic, but there’s a tremendous difference between the educational effect of what Paul did—his message was not just aimed at the Republican base—and Cruz’s pitch to the true believers. Cruz’s position is that the Republican Party only needs to be more Republican, as “Republican” has been defined by the talk-radio right in the past 20 years.
There are two problems with that. On a practical political level, that kind of Republicanism cannot win national majorities. And more importantly, it doesn’t deserve to. A Ted Cruz Republican—a Republican’s Republican—not only has no answers to the decline of the American middle class and the extraordinary ineptitude of U.S. global hegemony but refuses even to address the questions. Instead, we get outmoded cliches about socialism and free markets—when in fact what we’re looking at are alternative forms of mixed economy—and jingoism in foreign policy, if occasionally jingoism that opposes wars led by Democrats. These positions only distract from, or indeed exacerbate, the problems of our political economy and global strategy.
In drawing a contrast between Cruz and Paul, one shouldn’t downplay the conventional side of the Kentucky senator. He’s a conservative Republican very much in tune with the party’s activist base, he too draws contrasts between free markets and big government, and even in foreign policy he’s indulged some reflexive right-wing prejudices against foreign aid and sophisticated diplomacy. But that’s not the whole story: he knows his libertarian father’s point of view as well—which supplies reasons other than xenophobia for opposing foreign aid—and one gets the impression that Senator Paul recognizes both the virtues and limitations of the conventional Republican position and Paul père‘s libertarianism alike and is having to come up with a new synthesis of his own, one that doesn’t supply ready-made answers to every question and thus requires a great degree of prudential reflection. This is a practical effort, the fostering of a political philosophy through practice rather than theory or rabble-rousing p.r.
That’s not Rand Paul’s project alone, but he’s the most prominent of the truly post-Bush Republicans. Cruz, who seemed quite happy in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, is something else: a figure straight out of Rush Limbaugh’s dreams, the 2013 model of 2003’s Republican right.