The battle between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump isn’t just a fight for the Republican presidential nomination. It’s also a struggle for the soul of conservatism in America.
Trump, the blunt real estate mogul new to political combat, represents a less ideological brand of conservatism, one that is more a quick reaction to events. Build a wall to discourage illegal immigration and potentially create a new bureaucracy to round up people for deportation. Question Muslims coming into the country. His solutions are rooted less in ideological theory. He is above all else a negotiator, a deal maker.
Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas with a sharp, deeply felt conservative message, offers a firm ideological foundation. His ideas stem from a firm belief in smaller government, philosophies with lineage that goes back to the mid-20th century. He does not negotiate. He does not deal. When Washington moves toward spending more, he stands in the Capitol door threatening a shutdown over any compromise going in the direction of more government.
Trump’s effort to reshape conservatism in his own image is the newest iteration of a battle that dates back decades. Conservatism was nothing new, but was largely a loose collection of those opposed to the 1930s New Deal and its expansion of government. William F. Buckley Jr., the author and commentator, thought the ideology needed more of an intellectual bent, and he started National Review in 1955 as a forum for developing a solid philosophy.
Those views, honed and promoted over the years, helped create separate identities for the two major political parties. Think Democrats and liberals, big government, diversity. Republicans: Lower taxes, law and order, muscular foreign policy.
But Republicans in Washington have compromised. Spending has gone up. Government has grown. The party wins more seats in Congress, but seems to lose battles. Now comes this campaign, with Trump appealing to populists while brushing off some of the details of conservatism, and Cruz emerging as the voice of all those who want to draw a line.
Cruz won round one Monday, as he topped Trump in Iowa’s Republican caucus. They face each other next in New Hampshire, then in South Carolina and perhaps beyond.
On one side is the voice of Trump and the populists, feeling increasingly disenfranchised and frightened that their comfortable, if romanticized, way of life is slipping away. They seem unbothered when Trump defines conservatism as he sees fit. Spending is fine, he suggests, as long as it’s to stop illegal immigration. Nor do his supporters appear to mind what could be construed as opportunism, since he supported abortion rights or government-run health care several years ago.
They’re not rabid partisans, and through the years their allegiances have shifted. Andrew Jackson was the founder of the modern Democratic Party. George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992 ran as independents. Wallace was the champion of the Southern white alarmed by racial integration and a society that had lost its moral compass. Perot mobilized a middle class troubled by runaway federal spending and seeing the two political parties as unresponsive.
Ross Perot won 19% of the 1992 popular vote. George Wallace won 13.5% in 1968.
Their nemesis is the conservative establishment, painstakingly constructed and nurtured since the 1950s. It’s leaning gingerly to Cruz, but it might accept Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who finished a close third in Iowa.
“Ideology is getting lost here,” said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, the conservative magazine that argues strongly against Trump’s message.
Movement conservatives see 2016 as a rare opportunity to seize ideological control of Washington. The House of Representatives is solidly Republican and looks likely to stay that way. The Senate might go Democratic, but that’s no sure bet. Winning the White House could give Republicans power they have rarely had in the last century.
Buckley understood the conservative cause could not succeed only as a proletarian uprising. “Idealism is fine,” he said, “but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.”
The movement became an important political force in the 1960s, providing a libertarian, academic counterpoint to the expanding government that FDR’s New Deal had spawned and LBJ’s Great Society was about to greatly expand.
Barry Goldwater’s 1960 “Conscience of a Conservative” became the manifesto. Conservatives, he said, saw “politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of the social order.”
Goldwater won the GOP nomination in 1964 but was crushed in the general election. His followers were energized, though; they had created a movement strong enough to win the party’s biggest campaign prize. By 1976, its leader now Ronald Reagan, the movement just missed denying moderate Republican President Gerald Ford his party’s nomination. Four years later, Reagan ran and won on a platform largely faithful to Goldwater’s ideas.
Barry Goldwater won 52 electoral votes in 1964. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidency with 489 electoral votes.
The Republican Party now is unquestionably the conservative party. Yet it’s not a unified party.
Crusades require time and patience, but today talk radio, social media and sympathetic cable television networks have made long waits for results anachronistic. The tea party movement in 2009 grew out of a protest by CNBC Editor Rick Santelli against a federal housing initiative, and was vibrant enough to help Republicans win control of the House a year later.
Now comes Trump, vowing to “make America great again,” touching a sensitive nerve with exasperated voters. “People really worry about the country’s survival,” said Roger Beckett, executive director of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio, a conservative group.
In such anxious times, he said, people often look to the leader more than the ideology – classic Jacksonian populism. “Jacksonians are neither liberal nor conservative in the ways that political elites use those terms,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, editor at large for The American Interest Online, an independent forum. “They are radically egalitarian, radically pro-middle class, radically patriotic. . . . They are individualists who organize in response to threats.”
Movement conservatives nonetheless remain confident they will prevail. They’re encouraged by the showings of Cruz and Rubio in Iowa – together they got more than twice as many votes as Trump.
Reagan believed power flowed upward, that institutions existed to prod and encourage individual achievement, not guarantee or replace it.
Said Craig Shirley, Reagan biographer and conservative consultant: “Cruz’s going after the Washington bureaucracy fits the lineage.”
Key dates in conservative movement
1955 – William F. Buckley Jr. founds National Review, a forum for conservative thought.
1957 – Ayn Rand publishes “Atlas Shrugged,” a favorite of conservative libertarians.
1960 – Sen. Barry Goldwater publishes “Conscience of a Conservative.”
1964 – Goldwater wins Republican presidential nomination, is trounced in general election.
1970 – James Buckley wins U.S. Senate seat from New York running as Conservative Party candidate.
1973 – Conservative Political Action Conference founded, will become an influential political voice.
1973 –National Right to Life Committee formed.
1976 – Ronald Reagan, leading the conservative movement, almost beats President Gerald Ford for GOP
1980 – Reagan wins Republican nomination and presidency. GOP wins control of Senate, the first time it’s
controlled either chamber in 26 years.
1984 – Reagan re-elected in a landslide.
1991 – Clarence Thomas wins Supreme Court confirmation despite controversy.
1994 – Republicans win control of House for first time in 40 years behind “Contract with America.”
2000 – George W. Bush wins presidency.
2007 – Conservatives mobilize to kill bipartisan immigration overhaul legislation.
2009 – Tea party movement founded.
2010 – Tea party helps GOP regain control of House.
2014 – Republicans win control of both chambers of Congress, with biggest House majority in 65 years.