Ted Cruz spent the CNN debate Thursday drawing policy contrasts between himself and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. On ISIS, trade, and immigration, Cruz said Trump speaks to voters' concerns but doesn't have solutions that address the problems America confronts. The personal attacks and shouting that have characterized the previous Republican debates were gone, replaced with somber candidates trying to hit target audiences with messages that have worked in the past. Trump was the politically incorrect straight-talker who wants America to win again. Cruz was the conservative ideologue ready to take on the bipartisan Washington cartel. Marco Rubio was once again the youthful, eloquent voice of a rising generation of conservatives. And John Kasich is the experienced governor who wants to expand the Republican coalition by reviving the tradition of compassionate conservatism.
If 2016 were like previous elections, Rubio and Kasich would be neck and neck in the delegate count and ready to give Hillary Clinton tough competition in the general election. But 2016 is not like previous elections. It features a black swan in the form of Donald Trump, the celebrity real estate mogul who is taking over the Republican party, and whose rise is evidence of a powerful anti-Washington sentiment among GOP voters. So the race isn't between Rubio and Kasich. It's between Trump and his closest rival, Ted Cruz, who is disliked by his Senate colleagues and alienated most of Washington when he shut down the government in the fall of 2013.
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I doubt either Trump or Cruz is likely to win in November. But in recent days I have encountered the opinion, especially among liberals, that there is no difference between the two candidates. And this is a ridiculous idea. Cruz would make a much better president than Trump. It shouldn't be hard to see why.
For one thing, Cruz actually knows what he's talking about. If you listened to Trump during the CNN debate, you heard little in the way of policy detail. His answers begin with a few words describing how angry people are and how China is taking our jobs before ending with a demand that we negotiate better deals. Trump is full of bluster, often funny and impolitic. He's a great communicator because he reaches peoples' deepest emotions. But to call him "articulate" would be an exaggeration, and to call him a "wonk" would be delusional. You might not like Cruz's policies or the manner in which he communicates them, but there's no question he has firm convictions, a grasp of detail, and knows how to make an argument.
Then there is the question of the Constitution. Trump never mentions it. But Cruz worships it. He refers to it often in his speeches, knows its contents, is devoted to the memory of the Founders and wants to protect their legacy. I don't know how a President Trump would respond if one of the other coequal branches of government challenged his authority. Indeed, I am somewhat afraid that Trump would ignore or move against that other branch, whether it's Congress or the Court. But I don't have that worry with Cruz. He may be an ideologue, but he's an ideological constitutionalist. Trump is neither an ideologue nor a constitutionalist. His only principle is winning. And he's not talking about you winning. He's talking about Trump winning. That's all that matters to him.
The president is not only our head of government. He's also the head of state. He represents America. And I truly don't understand how one could think Donald Trump would be a better representative of America than Ted Cruz. Trump is riveting, entertaining, even charismatic. But he curses, he offends, he disturbs, he confronts, he bends and twists and pushes reality until it suits his needs. Having him as president would be like living on a rollercoaster. You wouldn't know whether you are up or down, and you are likely to wake up nauseous.
Cruz is very conservative, a Bible-believing Christian who is fiercely pro-market and hawkish (if not as interventionist as other Republicans). That might upset secular liberals worldwide. But would Cruz be as erratic, would he be as explosive, would he be as unsettling as Trump? I doubt it. The man idolizes Ronald Reagan. Well, we survived, indeed flourished under, one Reagan presidency. Not a bad model for our next president to have.
Who does Trump idolize? Himself. And his neutral and sometimes flattering attitude toward authoritarian governments ought to make you think twice about seeing him in the Oval Office.
The Oval Office seems very far away right now. It's unlikely either Trump or Cruz will be elected president. But nominating Trump would change the Republican Party in a way nominating Cruz would not. Trump overthrows the apple cart. He's already breaking one weak institution—the GOP—and there's no telling what other weak institutions he could break if elected to high office. For reasons of policy, presentation, and character, there is only one remaining choice in this GOP primary. It is Ted Cruz.