Congratulations to Texas Senator Ted Cruz for winning the Federalist Today Presidential Straw Poll with 26% of the nearly one thousand votes cast. Placing a respectable second and third, Senator Rand Paul (22%) and Governor Scott Walker (16%) showed that they also have considerable support among the “lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray” Federalist faithful.
The political insider would, undoubtedly, not be impressed. Good luck getting Senators Cruz or Paul elected President of the United States. Any such insurgent’s campaign will be undone by a press that favors Democrats, a bare-knuckles Republican establishment that favors milque-toast candidates, and a bewildered flyover electorate conditioned to favor one flavor-of-the-month insurgent presidential candidate after another, to the detriment of any effective insurgent candidacy.
These same insiders would have no problem envisioning a scenario in which insurgent Democrat Elizabeth Warren, establishment Democrat Hillary Clinton, or establishment Republicans Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, or Chris Christie win the presidency. Ruling-class smugness aside, these folks have a point: playing by the normal rules, the least likely outcome in 2016 is a victory by a Republican insurgent, even though 40% of Americans consistently identify themselves as conservatives (twice the typical number of progressives)
But who says we have to play by their rules?
Suppose the former South Carolina senator and current president of the Heritage Foundation, Jim DeMint, once again able to meet freely with sitting members of Congress, requests and leads a meeting in the new year with Cruz, Paul, and other serious insurgent candidates–two years before the inauguration of the next president of the United States. At the meeting, DeMint lays out two possible pathways to winning the presidency:
Scenario One: An insurgent miraculously wins a three-front 2016 election battle by simultaneously (a) consolidating conservative-libertarian support in the midst of a heated primary; (b) defeating a well-funded, well-positioned, well-organized Republican establishment candidate, and (c) defending himself against the mainstream media charge that he’s too outside the mainstream to win a national election. Likelihood of pulling off this trifecta in a condensed election season: almost zero.
Scenario Two: The insurgents agree to compete with one another over the summer and fall months of 2015 in a well-organized series of regional debates, speeches, town hall meetings, and organized votes. These events would aid the largely conservative and libertarian Republican base in naturally and fairly reducing the field of insurgents to one consensus candidate by Thanksgiving. Likelihood of winning the Republican nomination and thereafter the presidency: perhaps one in four, or about the same as the other contestant wings of the two major parties.
Leading the candidates through the math, DeMint convinces each that the most likely insurgent path to victory in 2016 (and therefore his most likely path to victory) comes from embracing the second option. Since each thinks he has the right stuff to win a fair fight, all agree to work together to make the fight fair.
Led by DeMint, candidates, donors, activists, and organizations across the conservative-libertarian spectrum through the spring of 2015 agree to the terms of the competition and work together to galvanize limited government partisans to participate in the affair. After a spirited summer and fall campaign season, an insurgent emerges from the field battle-tested and well-positioned to move on to win the Republican nomination.
Why is it essential that such an effort begin soon? If nothing like this starts to happen in the next few months, it is all but certain we’ll be playing 2016 by the normal rules, in which the ruling class house wins every time–and for those committed to constitutional, republican government, this is a dangerous election to lose.
The expansive executive power wielded by President Obama may very easily become institutionalized, especially if a Republican successor applies it to his own (perhaps better) ends. The open question, in essence, is whether the hegemonic Obama presidency is the exception or the new (bipartisan) rule. Whether recognized or not, this is the defining question for the campaign–and only a top-tier, battle-ready insurgent will be positioned to make it the defining question of the campaign.
The Democratic nominee–whether establishment Progressive or insurgent Progressiver–will have every partisan and ideological reason to consolidate and extend, where possible, President Obama’s institutional gains. Progressivism began with a revolt against the Constitution’s separation of powers system and a longing to replace it–in fact, if not in law–with a responsible and responsive centralized, parliamentary system led by a charismatic president (or prime minister).
An establishment Republican will be almost equally unlikely to undo the damage of the Obama presidency, not so much out of fealty to a long-term Progressive dream (which most establishment Republicans only accidentally–which is to say, unconsciously–share), but out of the general don’t-rock-the-boat respectabilitarianism that is their identifying pseudo-ideology.
We know enough about the Bushes not to expect Jeb to repudiate his brother’s own aggressive use of signing statements and other extra-constitutional prerogatives–and therefore can expect him to be as effectively neutered on the central issue of the 2016 campaign as Mitt Romney was on the central issue of the 2012 campaign (Obamacare, thanks to Romneycare). Moreover, does anyone think that gusto and bluster Chris Christie has a credible critique of executive overreach in him? Or once (and future?) would-be Management Consultant-in-Chief Mitt Romney?
A serious conservative-libertarian insurgent candidate that emerged from a serious debate on the contemporary state of the American republic should have a very different profile–beginning, we hope, with a very different understanding of the role of the president (and the leaders of the coordinate branches of the federal government) under our constitutional system.
There is no more insightful and aphoristic summary of the Constitution’s separation of powers system than Alexander Hamilton’s near the beginning of Federalist 78, in the context of explaining why the judiciary ought to be the “least dangerous” branch of the federal government:
The Executive branch not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment.
Force, will, and judgment–three distinct but complementary powers for three distinct but complementary branches. Combine any two and dangers to liberty abound. Most critically in our time, combining executive force with legislative will produces every opportunity for selective enforcement of oppressive rules–the exact opposite of what Hamilton suggests should be the aim of all government: “a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.”
Getting the basics right is the first step toward constitutional recovery. We believe that there are a number of potential insurgent candidates who could champion this cause and encourage like-minded members of Congress to do the same–and that they are much more likely both to make the effort and succeed in it with a pre-primary process that sharpens the insurgent message and unifies insurgent voters, donors, activists, and institutions.
One scenario is clear: we’ll either hang together in 2015–or be hung out to dry, once again, in 2016.