Opinion

How Ted Cruz killed conservative purity

Conservative purity is dead. Long live conservative purity.

Most analysis of the first presidential debate has followed very predictable lines. One assessment, however, stood out.

"Donald Trump had his strongest debate performance of the election cycle," wrote Trump's most tenacious primary debate foe. "He drew strong contrasts with Hillary on taxes, regulations, law and order, and the disastrous Iran deal."

Last week, such an endorsement from Ted Cruz would have seemed unthinkable — and still does to many of Cruz's supporters.

Cruz endorsed Trump last Friday, and the conservative movement — or at least the big part of it that lined up behind the senator from Texas in the 2016 GOP primaries — has melted into a sad puddle. #NeverTrump holdouts are disappointed, dismayed, and feel betrayed. The man who had spent the past year arguing principle over pragmatism has suddenly switched sides, arguing that voters must choose between the two options left with any practical chance of winning the election — principle be damned.

Cruz delivered a clear message at the Republican National Convention: Vote your conscience. That had been the rallying cry for the movement to unbind all delegates on the first ballot, a move that Cruz's supporters thought would eventually lead to his nomination. When Cruz implored Republicans to "vote your conscience," it came across as a statement of rebellion, and Cruz received an avalanche of boos from the delegates on the floor.

Cruz is now trying to have it both ways. "If Clinton wins, we know — with 100 percent certainty — that she would deliver on her left-wing promises, with devastating results for our country," Cruz said in his endorsement statement. "My conscience tells me I must do whatever I can to stop that."

No critic appears to have taken it as personally as Glenn Beck. The talk-show host and owner of The Blaze had embraced Cruz for his ideological purity and refusal to compromise. Cruz gamely kept a scheduled appearance on Beck's show on Monday, and ended up taking a beating from his one-time ally, who pointed out that the same binary Clinton-or-Trump choice existed in the same form at the time of Cruz's address to the convention.

"This is all the information you had in Cleveland," Beck said. "You had this information the day you dropped out of the race, and said that Donald Trump is a 'sociopathic liar.' You had all this information. Do you have new information that has made you say, 'Oh my gosh, he's now not a sociopathic liar. He is not the guy that I very eloquently spelled out, for over a year, and now there's suddenly a reason to believe him'?"

Cruz's only response was to fall back on the same pragmatism he cited in his endorsing statement. "We are in an election with a binary choice," Cruz said, which failed to comfort Beck in the least.

"For the very first time I heard Ted Cruz calculate," Beck later declared. "It's my fault for believing men can actually be George Washington. It's my fault."

Perhaps it is, but Beck is not alone in this self-deception. Cruz has taught us all a valuable lesson, one that goes beyond the biblical advice, "Put not your trust in princes."

First of all, the rigid-ideologue posture may come naturally to Cruz, but there was certainly calculation in that approach, too. Cruz ran for president after just a few short years in the Senate, which he joined in 2013. These were years in which he established himself as an ideological obstructionist. He led a government shutdown over ObamaCare funding in 2013 that had no possible outcome except failure, as anyone who understands the budgeting and legislative process knew. Cruz tilted at that windmill to cast himself as the leader of the conservative movement, even though he ended up leading Republicans into a cul-de-sac with nowhere to go but eventual surrender. The GOP got lucky, however, when the rollout of ObamaCare became a much larger debacle than even its critics had predicted, and the short-lived and ill-fated shutdown quickly faded from memory.

The conservative movement itself has made it clear that it's in no mood for compromise or pragmatism. Instead, over the last few years, the mood has shifted into a purity campaign that certainly fed into Cruz's calculations. The purity campaign extended to anyone who'd ever worked across the aisle, even for conservative approaches to contentious issues.

But a funny thing happened on the way to purity. The bitter partisan stalemate resulting from purity campaigns on the right and the left created an electorate that no longer trusts in the political process. The Republican nomination came down to the ideological purist and Donald Trump, the pragmatic outsider who promised voters he'd just get things done — and Trump handily beat Cruz. Democrats nearly dumped the bare-knuckled partisan candidate of Business As Usual for a socialist backbencher in the Senate.

It's not just the populists, either. Voters across the spectrum have tired of infighting and want solutions — and that means finding ways to work together, rather than wait for promises of victory by sheer force of will over the realities of Congressional majorities and White House control.

Perhaps Cruz, who has a brilliant mind and usually good instincts, understands that he hit the limit of purist politics. It might be that the prosaic truth of the binary choice, plus his ambitions for higher office later, necessitates pragmatism. Either way, Cruz's endorsement acknowledges the main lesson Trump's nomination should teach conservatives: Philosophy is not enough in politics. Voters want to see results and solutions, not just stunts. And if they can't get either from the leaders of the governing class, they'll go outside the system instead.

Cruz has belatedly rediscovered pragmatism, which prompts the immediate question as to whether Cruz can convince #NeverTrumpers to follow suit. But the larger question is whether conservative purists will apply the lesson after this election cycle.

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