Cruz vs Rubio: The Unfinished Business from the Republican Primary

by Benjamin Studebaker

After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, the Republican Party establishment decided it needed to expand its base and wrote a report to this effect. The plan was for the party to triangulate to some degree on immigration and social issues to win more votes from Hispanics and women, moderating its positions and principles to make itself more attractive to these demographic groups. As Jeb Bush flamed out, Marco Rubio became the poster boy of this new style of conservative politics. But the Republican anti-establishment never bought into this strategy. Led by Ted Cruz, they firmly believed that Romney lost because he failed to excite the Republican base and that the answer was for the party to nominate a “true conservative”. The 2016 Republican primary was all set to be a showdown between “reform conservatism” and the Cruz counterrevolution, but then Donald Trump showed up and made the whole thing about him and about the public’s growing economic frustration. It now looks increasingly likely (but far from certain) that Trump will lose by a significant margin. What effect will that have on this debate and the party’s prospects in 2020?

To answer that question, we have to understand what these different strands of conservatism are trying to do. In recent history American conservatism has tried to straddle three distinct movements:

  1. Neoconservatism, which is committed to a hawkish, interventionist foreign policy to promote the spread of capitalism and democracy abroad.
  2. Libertarianism, which is committed to small government and consequently the reduction of taxes, public services, regulations, and welfare spending.
  3. Social conservatism, which is committed to maintaining and where possible expanding the influence of traditional Christian values over American law and culture.

There is also another conservative movement in America, which straddles the territory between the “old right” and the “alt-right”. These forms of conservatism are heavily nationalist but rather than promote interventionism to spread capitalism and democracy they promotes a foreign policy in which America acts primarily to defend its immediate material interests with little concern for whether that benefits or harms other states or peoples. The “old right” takes this in a more isolationist direction–it rejects intervention on the grounds that it’s a waste of money and resources. The “alt-right” is more traditionally imperialist and wants a strong, aggressive president who will use the country’s leverage to extract concessions from other countries through pro-American deals backed by the credible threat of severe negative consequences. At times, the alt-right’s nationalism veers into racial and ethnic hostility and it often sympathizes with right nationalist movements in other countries (National Front in France, UKIP in Britain, Alternative for Germany, Putin in Russia, etc.). Here’s an example of it in its most visceral, unfiltered form:

Since World War II, the old right has been disempowered in the Republican Party and the alt-right has played at most a peripheral role (though it’s sometimes been dog-whistled at by candidates like Richard Nixon). Since the Iraq War, neoconservatism has become something of an albatross for the Republican Party and many conservative politicians have preferred to partially or fully replace neoconservatism with old right isolationism or alt-right imperialism. Gary Johnson and Ron Paul are both old right types; Donald Trump may fit better with the alt-right. In a country where many people have been economically struggling and many Americans feel the United States is being bled white by its traditional allies and trading partners, these old right and alt-right appeals are increasingly powerful.

This conflict between neoconservatism and the old right and alt-right effectively hijacked the Republican primary and prevented the party from having the planned showdown between establishment figures like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and counterrevolutionaries like Ted Cruz, which Cruz was meant to lose. Bush and Rubio hoped to expand the Republican coalition while retaining its current support base by transforming Republican social conservatism from an offensive movement into a defensive movement. Instead of attempting to stop gay marriage and abortion, social conservatism was to be reduced to protecting the religious freedom of those who were unwilling participate in gay marriages and preserving extant restrictions on late term abortions.

This might have gone through, but Republicans also decided to triangulate on immigration, and in so doing they awoken the sleeping old right/alt-right giant. Many establishment Republicans have no real reason to care about immigration–they own the businesses that benefit from cheap immigrant labor and they want the Hispanic voters that they would be denied by taking a strong stand on immigration. And yet the American white working class is deeply concerned about immigration, and once immigration becomes detached from establishment conservatism they become much more available to alternative right wing movements.

Ted Cruz quickly saw that he could use immigration as a stick with which to beat establishment conservatives, aiding him in his counterrevolutionary efforts. But what Cruz could not have seen coming was that Donald Trump would enter the race, make immigration his signature issue, and beat Cruz at his own game. On top of this, Trump created a new binary between “the politicians” and himself, casting Cruz as part of the very establishment movement Cruz himself had done such an effective job of damaging over the years:

As Rubio and Bush pulled out, Cruz attempted to reposition himself as a champion of the establishment against Trump, but this only helped Trump devastate Cruz’s brand further. While Cruz’s decision to encourage Republicans to “vote their conscious” played well with the beltway establishment, it further solidified him as part of the establishment he had opposed in the eyes of many Trump supporters, who thought Cruz should honor the infamous pledge to support the party’s nominee. His subsequent U-turn and endorsement of Trump alienated him from those supporters he had retained without immediately reversing the damage done to him.

But by 2020 or 2024, this is likely to be long forgotten. If Trump loses as now appears likely, the internal debate between the Rubio types and the Cruz types will still not have been resolved. Both sides have distanced themselves from Trump sufficiently that neither will take his defeat as any form of resolution. This is because Trump mixed elements of reform conservatism in with the old and alt-right stuff. On the one hand, he has de-emphasized social issues tremendously–something Bush or Rubio would have liked to see the party do. On the other hand, he emphasized immigration and channeled the old and alt-right–something Cruz was trying to do. Rubio types can claim that Trump was not a true reform conservative because he failed to reach out to Hispanics by triangulating on immigration and Cruz types can claim that Trump was not a true conservative because he failed to rally social conservative voters. If Trump loses, the only brand of conservatism for which this will be an unambiguous defeat is Trumpism, and even Trump’s supporters will argue that Trump lost not because his ideology is unattractive because because of the packaging–Trump’s undisciplined campaign style has undoubtedly inhibited his movement from reaching its electoral potential.

So entering play in 2020, there will still be serious divisions within the Republican Party, and all Trump will have done is add an additional line of division to those already extant. We will have the following distinct factions:

Movement Foreign Policy Economic Policy Social Policy Examples
Establishment Reform Conservatism Neoconservatism Libertarianism Defensive Social Conservatism Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Graham, McCain, Romney, Ryan
Anti-Establishment “True” Conservatism Neoconservatism with some Old Right Flavor Libertarianism Aggressive Social Conservatism Cruz, Bachmann, Cain, Carson, Palin, Huckabee, Santorum
Trumpism Old Right Isolationism and/or Alt-Right Imperialism Protectionism Defensive Social Conservatism Donald J. Trump
Anti-Establishment Libetarianism Old Right Isolationism Libertarianism Social Libertarianism Rand Paul, Gary Johnson

If the next nominee is again chosen through the Republican primary process, the Republican establishment will have no meaningful way of ensuring the first faction prevails, and it is entirely possible that a Cruz-type will be nominated or even a Trump-type (provided this person is not Trump and has a greater level of self-control). The one faction that seems to stand little chance of doing well in that contest is the anti-establishment libertarians, who have struggled to surpass Ron Paul’s 2012 showing of 11% in the primaries. Even that was only good for 4th in popular vote that year.

This is a troubling picture for the Republicans–they have a number of unresolved issues that were meant to be resolved in 2016, and instead Trump has only made things more convoluted. It’s likely to put them at a disadvantage in 2020 if he does indeed go on to lose. But this disadvantage could be surmounted if Hillary Clinton is unsuccessful in restoring the confidence of poor and working class voters in the dominant establishment economic ideology. Given that Democrats are unlikely to control the House, Clinton will probably struggle to enact the policies that would be needed to give her a chance of doing this, and that will create an opening for whomever does win the Republican nomination in 2020, regardless of what that person’s brand of conservatism is and no matter how much in-fighting the Republicans endure.