After much speculation about what he would do, Ted Cruz shared the news earlier today that Donald Trump has invited him to speak at the Republican National Convention, and that Cruz has accepted.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about this, but I do entirely understand why the party’s runner-up—who happens to also embody the ideological heart and soul of the GOP’s conservative base—would ultimately decide to speak at the GOP Convention. Cruz is a very methodical and careful political actor, and I have little doubt that, in accepting Trump’s invitation, he already had a pretty clear idea of what he planned to say in the speech that will define his political career. Nonetheless, from the perspective of a longtime fan who both campaigned hard for Cruz from Iowa through Indiana this presidential primary season but is also avowedly #NeverTrump and has harshly criticized the orange-hued clown, I would like to offer my own thoughts on what Cruz should say in Cleveland.
I think it is first important to contextualize Cruz’s speech. Since he arrived in Washington, D.C. in 2013, Cruz has worked very diligently to position himself as one of the great national leaders of the modern conservative movement. Though he has made plenty of enemies in his own party along the way, he has, without question, succeeded in that endeavor. He is the living, breathing embodiment of defunding Obamacare, fighting unconstitutional amnesty, eviscerating oppressive taxation, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the State of Israel against the global jihad. He emerged as the definitive conservative option in this presidential primary season, and took the fight hard to the alt-right’s anointed god-king when that god-king slung some of the very worst below-the-belt mud that any modern presidential candidate has ever slung. Having fought the good fight against an unfathomably narcissistic and petulant foe who did not play by any of the rules, all signs now point toward Cruz’s broader operation being the forward-looking focal point of the conservative movement in America.
That is the context for Cruz’s speech in Cleveland. The speech will define his political career, to-date. Many of his most ardent fans, including some of the #NeverTrump-iest of all #NeverTrump-ers (such as myself), will be paying very careful attention to Cruz’s words.
With Cruz asserting himself as the present leader of the conservative movement, if not the present leader of the Republican Party (well done, primary voters), the comparison that immediately comes to mind is Ronald Reagan in 1976. That comparison should be second nature for Cruz, since he frequently compares himself to Ronald Reagan anyway. He most recently did so in his 2016 campaign’s farewell video:
Ronald Reagan, in 1976, came up short. I suspect, at that convention, there were more than a few tears shed. It’s going to be our task to go forward and continue fighting for that movement.
Cruz has come as close as he possibly can to announcing he will run again in 2020 without actually saying it explicitly, so the comparison to Reagan is 1976 is truly apt. Though distinct in some crucial ways, Reagan’s impromptu 1976 speech is a sound jumping-off point. There are aspects of the Gipper’s speech that are surely instructive.
One of the first takeaways of the 1976 speech is Reagan’s characteristic optimism—his deep-seated belief not just in American exceptionalism, but that America’s best days are still ahead. The contrast with Donald Trump, whose now-iconic campaign slogan is explicitly predicated on the notion that America has been in decline for some time, could not be starker. In crafting his own tone, Cruz would do well to channel the Gipper’s intrinsic optimism about the American experiment.
Soon after first getting elected in 2012, Cruz spoke of “opportunity conservatism” and of offering positive, forward-looking economic reforms to meaningfully improve the quotidian lives of ordinary people. Now, three and a half years after being sworn in to the U.S. Senate, I hear complaints all the time about Cruz’s rhetoric and cadence—of how his rhetoric is invariably somewhat apocalyptic, and his cadence excessively preacher-like; some of these complaints, frankly, actually come from friends who are staunch Cruz supporters. On delivery, Cruz should closely mirror his 2016 campaign farewell speech in Indianapolis, which I thought was the finest speech of his campaign; he was confident and projected boldly, and commanded a strong stage presence. On rhetoric, Cruz should conscientiously return to more of an “opportunity conservatism” message. He should speak, inspirationally and in broad strokes, about why free markets and thriving civil societies are superior methods of wealth creation and poverty eradication than are sclerotic bureaucracy and welfare state dependency. He might want to channel Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, who makes the moral case for free enterprise perhaps better than anyone else in the country; he could also share the now well-known story of his father’s fleeing Cuba and arriving in America with only $100 sewn into his underwear.
Cruz, who is a brilliant constitutional lawyer (and, indeed, scholar), should also take us as far back as American first principles can possibly go: to the American Founding itself. With a presumptive nominee who thinks judges sign bills and that the Constitution has at least twelve Articles, never has such a history lesson been more necessary. Cruz should talk about the central moral assertions—the timeless truths—proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, and which were brought to life in the form of a pragmatic governance thirteen years later via the ratification of the Constitution. With the rule of law presently under assault on all sides, Cruz should discuss the enduring need for an impartial rule of law that does not cater to elites, and which places not one individual above it. He should talk about how all political actors—be they Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, or the President of the Unites States—are necessarily subject to the Constitution’s structural safeguards “to the end that individual liberty might be preserved.” The implied contrast of Cruz’s constitutionalist humility with both the should-be criminal Hillary Clinton and the would-be despot Donald Trump will be powerful.
Since this is the Republican National Convention and not CPAC or the RedState Gathering, Cruz should also discuss the Republican Party itself. He should talk about the Party’s first president, Abraham Lincoln—how Lincoln explicitly rejected the siren song of the “will of the people” in order to reject plebiscitary majoritarianism and finally actualize the eternal truths proclaimed in the Declaration. In so doing, he can simultaneously both appeal to Lincoln and riposte the present anti-rule of law zeitgeist by means of explicitly rejecting the fallacious doctrine of judicial supremacy—a belief which Cruz is actually already on record as espousing. He can reference the moral compasses of the under-appreciated laissez-faire brilliance of Calvin Coolidge, the strong leadership of Dwight Eisenhower, and the realization of the Republican Party as a conservative vehicle via the Reagan Revolution.
Cruz must explicitly make the case that the conservative movement needs the Republican Party just as the Republican Party needs the conservative movement. While necessarily more constrained and less explicitly disparaging of our would-be nominee (unless, by the grace of God, #FreeTheDelegates will have already happened by the time he speaks) than some of us #NeverTrump-ers might otherwise emotionally prefer, Cruz should still speak in much the same way as Eli Steinberg did here last month at The Federalist:
Many conservatives are mourning “the death of the Republican Party.” They see this hostile takeover as their cue to abandon ship, ceding the party to the populists. But there is no reason to do so. The Republican Party is a great party, and whatever it would be replaced with won’t be any better. It is sick and weak, but with the right care, it can be restored to its former glory. Only if conservatives surrender it to the Trumpists will it really die. Conservatives need to stand up and fight for their party, because the Grand Old Party belongs to conservatives, not to the naked populists.
That last sentence encapsulates what must be Cruz’s message. Cruz must argue to the Republicans at the Republican National Convention that the GOP’s ideological conservatism can withstand this brief (however deeply unfortunate) dalliance with the alt-right, and he must simultaneously argue to conservatives all across the country that the Republican Party is still their natural partisan home. In so doing, he should speak about the party’s historical greatness, the moral imperative of limited-government and free-market policies, how a free people cannot be free without a truly neutral, impartial rule of law, the timelessness of our constitutional system of governance and the Bill of Rights it emphatically secures, and the enduring need for American global leadership—with the lattermost being yet another very important point of implied contrast with the Charles Lindbergh “America First”-esque bloviating orange man. He should channel James Madison in The Federalist No. 10 and explicitly reject the pernicious excesses of a populist majoritarianism.
Crucially, there is one thing that Cruz simply cannot do in his Cleveland speech. Cruz is far too smart to not realize this already, but let me state it clearly here: Ted Cruz cannot, under any circumstances, endorse Donald Trump. Period. The temporary gain in his stature with Reince Priebus and Mitch McConnell will be massively dwarfed by the long-term repercussions of his national followers feeling utterly betrayed by his endorsing the man he previously called a “pathological liar” and an “utterly amoral” narcissist. I do not mean to belabor the point, since I simply do not believe there is any real chance it will happen. A line or two bashing the Democrats’ own horrible nominee, of course, is completely fine.
Similarly, however, those of us who despise Donald Trump—who are simply repulsed by him, to be quite frank—must temper our expectations for how aggressively Cruz can go after Trump. Cruz can, and must, defend the intellectual integrity of the post-Russell Kirk/William F. Buckley Jr. conservative movement. Cruz can, and must, distinguish conservatism from Trumpism—likely both explicitly and implicitly. Cruz can, and must, argue for the mutual beneficialness of the alliance between the conservative movement as an ideological compass and the Republican Party as a partisan vehicle. But, pending a #FreeTheDelegates miracle, he must likely do so while limiting the verbal intensity of his disdain for the Party’s non-conservative would-be nominee.
If Cruz can accomplish all of this while exuding a positive, optimistic tone—if he can convince his Republican audience of the importance of conservatism as a governing ideology and his conservative audience of the importance of the GOP as a partisan home—then he will have been successful. He will have truly solidified himself, indeed, as the leader of the conservative movement in America. Best of luck, sir, and Godspeed.