LYNCHBURG, VA – What is Ted Cruz running for? I mean, he’s running for president, of course. But for what reason is he running? What is his goal, how is he selling himself to the voters—and what does he want to do with the office if he gets it?
The Federalist asked me to go see his official announcement speech at Liberty University. It wasn’t likely to contain a lot of surprises; Ted Cruz is a known entity, unlike another first-term Senator who ran for president. But I wanted to see what he would emphasize and what message he would send about how he intends to run.
Cruz is a very articulate guy—quite at ease with an audience, and with no need for a TelePrompTer—so it’s no surprise that he gave us the phrase that sums up his campaign. He described it as a movement of “courageous conservatives.”
To back that up, the whole middle of his speech was a complete rundown of the dream agenda of the conservative base.
He promised to “repeal every word of ObamaCare” and also to “repeal every word of Common Core,” the federal government’s power grab over local school curriculum. This is not quite accurate because Common Core has never actually been written down as a law. But he got around to that later, promising to reverse the current president’s practice of using executive power to bypass Congress.
He promised to secure the borders (but also to make sure that America is “welcoming to those who come to achieve the American dream”). He promised to defend the Second Amendment. He promised to push for a flat tax. And to “abolish the IRS.” Really.
Those are just the highlights. Put it this way: I’m going to have to eat a salad for lunch, because I feel like I just gorged on red meat.
There were a few items that might seem surprising, reflecting the more libertarian aspect of the right’s agenda. Cruz promised an unregulated Internet, in a clear jab at Net Neutrality, and he promised to protect our right to privacy against government surveillance.
Cruz didn’t say much about foreign policy, except for declaring that he would not accept a nuclear Iran. But within a few sentences, he talked about “American exceptionalism,” about being a “shining city on a hill,” and—in case we didn’t get the message already—called us the “indispensable nation.” His promise to “stand with Israel” was one of the biggest applause lines of the speech and was met, interestingly, with chants of “USA! USA!” On the right, it seems that support for Israel has become an issue of American patriotism.
In case you’re skeptical about whether he can achieve any of this, he ended with a rundown of the “unimaginable” achievements of Ronald Reagan: lowering the top income tax rate from 70% to 28%, reigniting economic growth, winning the Cold War, and so on. “And yet, with the grace of God, that’s exactly what happened…. Compared to that, repealing ObamaCare and abolishing the IRS ain’t all that tough.”
He declared: “The power of the American people when we rise up and stand for liberty knows no bounds.” That’s when he gave us the line about “courageous conservatives.” So his message to the right is, if I may put it this way: “Yes, we can.”
You can draw your own conclusions from that. We’ll have time later to discuss whether Cruz is electable in the general election and whether he can really achieve what he claims he can. But now we have confirmation of the niche he’s carving out in the primaries: he’s the guy who promises to deliver the whole agenda of the right.
It went over very, very well with the audience at Liberty University. But then again, was that ever in doubt?
His references to the “grace of God,” not to mention his decision to kick off his campaign at Liberty University, which he pointed out is the world’s largest Christian university, raises the question of where religion fits in that agenda. Cruz was longer on rhetoric than on specifics. He talked about defending religious liberty, specifically in the context of the Hobby Lobby case and promised to deliver “a federal government that stands for the First Amendment rights of every American.”
He talked about millions of American standing up for liberty, but also million of “people of faith” going to the polls to “vote their values.” And he talked about replacing a “government that work to undermine our values” with a government that “works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage.” Note that word: “sacrament.” If marriage is a sacrament established by God, it can’t very well be redefined by man, can it?
It was also clear that for Cruz, the secular aspects of liberty and his religious views are all part of the same agenda. The “promise of America” he defined as: “The revolutionary idea…that our rights, they don’t come from man. They come from God Almighty. And that the purpose of the Constitution, as Thomas Jefferson said, was to serve as chains that bind the mischief of the government.”
Like I said, it’s the whole conservative agenda, with nothing missing.
But that wasn’t the only thing he cited as the “promise of America.” The beginning of the speech was a series of stories about his background and his family’s background, built around a common theme.
Cruz started with a story about a young woman growing up in unpromising circumstances with a father who “frankly didn’t think women should be educated,” who got degree in mathematics and became a “pioneering computer programmer” in the 1950s. This was his mother. (And note that by beginning with the story of a woman who achieved success against the odds, he is playing against the media’s expectations about conservatives.)
He told the story of his father as a young man fighting against the Batista regime in Cuba, being imprisoned and tortured, and fleeing to America, where he started out washing dishes and making 50 cents an hour.
But the stories aren’t just about how his parents were self-made economically. He also talked about how they reinvented themselves spiritually. He told about how his father began drinking and left the family when Cruz was three years old. Then a coworker invited him to a Bible study group at a Baptist church in Texas, where the elder Cruz “gave his life to Jesus Christ, and God transformed his heart.” His parents got back together. “There are people who wonder if faith is real. I can tell you, in my family there is not a second of doubt.”
I come from the secular wing of the right, and when it comes to God, I’m with Laplace: I have no need of that hypothesis. But I can understand why others think they do need it, and I’ll admit that I found this story moving. Young Ted Cruz clearly grew up believing God is what brought his family back together and made a big positive difference in his life.
But he continued with stories that emphasized work and striving: his wife’s work in a bakery; his story about learning from his father about life under dictatorship in Cuba and about the importance of Constitution; his own story of taking two jobs as a teenager to pay his way through college.
He concluded: “These are all of our stories. These are who we are as Americans.” So the “promise of America” is also the dynamism and economic freedom that makes it possible to “come to America with nothing and achieve anything.”
Cruz is campaigning as a self-made man speaking on behalf of a nation of people who identify with work, striving, self-reliance, and self-improvement. This was the most personal, moving, and effective part of his speech. It is likely to be the most effective part of his campaign—and a good reason not to discount him in the general election. It’s also something the Republican Party needs, especially if it is going to have a nominee whose name is not “Bush.”
That’s the new thing I learned in Lynchburg. Ted Cruz will be a fierce and effective competitor for the political niche as a representative of the striving American common man. Which is probably the most important niche Republicans will need to occupy in 2016.
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