After Iowa, it looks like the Republican race is settling into a three-man contest between Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio. Among the viable contenders, Cruz and Rubio have been my first and second picks for the nomination, so I’m pretty happy about the way things are shaping up. However, Rubio’s second-place appeal is a very distant second. If you favor limited government, rule of law, and free markets, and if you believe our political system needs real and lasting change, there are compelling reasons to throw all your support behind Ted Cruz.
Both Cruz and Rubio talk a pretty good game when it comes to the political, economic, and moral foundations from which they would govern. They have their differences, some of them important, but my case for Cruz does not rest on a detailed breakdown of his and Rubio’s policy disagreements. The trouble with supporting a candidate solely based on campaign rhetoric, or even past positions, is that things change when you’re in the Oval Office. I don’t trust anyone who is driven and egotistical enough to run for president. Compromises will be made and promises will be forgotten; it’s the nature of the office and the men who fill it. Our Founding Fathers designed a system of government based on the assumption that politicians will be political, and things haven’t changed in 200 years.
Instead of asking who intends to be more conservative, I want to know who can be entrusted with the power of the presidency and stay conservative. The trouble that limited-government conservatives have had in recent decades is that Washington itself has an almost irresistible culture and set of assumptions which, Borg-like, assimilate all who dare to enter. John Boehner? Eric Cantor? John Roberts? Most of the Republican majority who voters sent to Congress in the last few years to resist President Obama’s agenda and roll back his policies? The gravitational pull of business-as-usual is too strong, and the compromises are all in one direction.
My biggest fear with Marco Rubio is that he is too susceptible to the siren call of “let’s make a deal.” Whatever his conservative convictions, his is not the personality to stand against the weight of the media and political establishment. When Ted Cruz campaigned in Iowa, a must-win state for him, he opposed the indefensible ethanol subsidies that are as sacred a sacred cow as Iowa has. Rubio, on the other hand, violates his own free-market principles by continuing to defend the equally indefensible sugar subsidies that are popular in his home state of Florida.
Cruz and Rubio both got elected by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants, but when Rubio got to Washington he worked with Chuck Schumer on the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill which created exactly the sort of amnesty he had categorically opposed while campaigning. At the time, Rubio and others argued the bill was as good as they could get with a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate, but that is exactly the point. Washington’s unsustainable behemoth is not going to be trimmed down to size with “good enough” compromises. Rubio’s instinct to compromises contrasts with Cruz’s intransigence as he led the fight against the amnesty bill and, surprisingly, won.
Of course, Cruz hasn’t always won his fights, and he has alienated a lot of his colleagues in the process. The government shutdown he engineered in opposition to Obamacare was widely panned on both sides of the aisle, and it arguably wasn’t the wisest tactic. On the other hand, the shutdown helped to hang the increasingly unpopular federal takeover of health insurance entirely around the Democratic Party’s neck, and Republicans haven’t exactly suffered in subsequent elections. We can debate the merits of the shutdown, but the fact remains that Cruz stood nearly alone to fight an unconstitutional takeover which had been accepted as a fait accompli by the public, the media, and most of his own party. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s words when Ulysses S. Grant was criticized for his handling of the bloody battle of Shiloh: “I can’t spare this man–he fights.”
Cruz fights, and he also seems to win a good deal more than the media or the political establishment expects. He won election to the Senate in a come-from-behind race in which nobody expected him to have a chance. He, Mike Lee, and others shifted the political conversation on Obamacare, amnesty, and other issues where Republicans were supposed to have a disadvantage. And so far this year, he has run a tactically brilliant campaign. Rick Perry attacked Donald Trump and lost. Lindsey Graham attacked Trump and lost. Jeb Bush attacked Trump and lost. Cruz attacked Trump and left him in second place in Iowa, and the seemingly unbeatable blowhard may never recover. When was the last time Republicans had a candidate who was actually good at political tactics? (McCain? Romney?) In contrast, Rubio has been criticized for lackadaisical campaigning, relying largely on canned stump speeches and perceived electability.
Look: If you’re a conservative Republican voter, you can count on Rubio being among the last candidates standing, and that’s a good thing. The GOP establishment is going to line up behind him with money and endorsements, and the race will end up being either Cruz vs. Rubio, Rubio vs. Trump, or Cruz vs. Rubio vs. Trump. If Cruz is out and it ends up being a race between the establishment conservative and the incoherent, egomaniacal toddler, vote for the establishment conservative and be glad that we might get one of the better presidents in the last few decades. But as long as Ted Cruz is in the race, why not support the guy who might actually change the way Washington does business?