Sen. Ted Cruz’ victory in the Iowa Caucus last night leaves Sen. Marco Rubio as the “Establishment” alternative to the “populist” rebels, namely Cruz and Donald Trump — or so the punditeska of the American media tells us. Rubio’s stronger-than-expected third place finish gives the “Establishment” a viable horse in the race after the implosion of Bush 3.0. The content of the Republican primaries is obscure even to American analysts, and from an Asian vantage point must appear as opaque as the tribal dances of New Guinea neolithics. Nonetheless, Iowa is a great moment for a radically changing world.
“No one likes Ted Cruz,” one hears from Establishment players. One of Mitt Romney’s largest “bundlers” (fund-raisers) told me, “There are 99 other senators and hundreds of Congressmen, and not one of them likes Cruz. How can he get elected?”
Cruz’s colleagues hate him with good reason. During the Reagan and Bush pere-et-fils administrations, the Republican Establishment became a formidable force, with major media (Fox News and the Wall Street Journal), think tanks (with the American Enterprise Institute in the lead), political journals, and — perhaps most important — an intellectual caste prepared to train and vet promising young people for future high positions. Although American universities fell under the sway of the Left, conservative holdouts in university departments could direct their students into the right internships, starter jobs, and senior positions with appropriate doctorates, scholarly articles, middlebrow books and newspaper op-eds.
And at the end of the career cycle, there were lobbying firms to provide pension plans. Newt Gringrich’s $1.6 million lobbying fee for the Federal National Mortgage Association, a prime culprit in the 2008 subprime crash, was egregrious but not atypical. The donor list that Irving Kristol assembled back when he ran the Reagan administration’s kindergarten at the American Enterprise Institute still provides fellowships at foundations, research grants, and subsidies for loss-making publications.
The problem is that the Republican Establishment failed catastrophically in the mid-2000s. It sold out to the subprime bubblers (although the Wall Street Journal editorial page warned early and often of the risks of federal guarantees for dodgy mortgage loans). It was asleep at the switch when the banks persuaded then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan to allow 70-t0-1 leverage on bogus AAA securities backed by subprime. And it closed ranks between the stupidest idea in the history of American foreign policy, namely the export of democracy at great cost in blood and treasure.
The rest of the world has ground its teeth in frustration over America’s determination to compound its blunders. George W. Bush’s strategic overreach was followed by Barack Obama’s strategic withdrawal, leaving the rest of the world to improvise solutions to problems that America used to address — for example, metastisizing Sunni jihadism. The Establishment was the creature of Reagan’s Cold War victory, and it still believes that it is fighting the Cold War, as in John Kasich’s debate promise to punch Putin in the face — a tough fellow that for a Midwestern governor.
Cruz first drew the wrath of the Establishment in the fall of 2014 when he averred that the US had stayed too long in Iraq, adding that the US should not try to turn Iraq into Switzerland. That is not merely heresy, but an existential threat to an Establishment that went all in on the Bush Freedom Agenda, up through and including the abortive, misnomered “Arab Spring.” Americans forgive a lot, but they don’t easily forgive a leadership that sends American soldiers into harm’s way on behalf of a failed social experiment.
The townsfolk are now marching on Frankenstein’s castle, and sly Donald Trump made hay at the Establishment’s expense from the outside, ridiculing the Iraq War and offering to work with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. If Ted Cruz were elected president, the whole apparatus of the Establishment would come undone, donor grants, lobbying access and all. Newly-minted Ph.Ds in “political philosophy” would starve in adjunct teaching jobs rather than stalk the halls of Congress.
What makes Cruz so hated is simply that he is smart enough to do without the Establishment. Cruz likes to compare himself to Reagan, whose autodicactic education in foreign policy gave him independence of judgment and confidence to pursue victory in the Cold War when the Establishment of his day thought it impossible. In many ways, Cruz will have a bigger problem if elected: for a decade prior to Reagan’s victory, the neo-conservatives (led by their “godfather” Irving Kristol) had trained cadre, ground out academic articles, and sparred over the big themes in the op-ed columns of the major media. Today the pickings are much slimmer. It’s not so much that the emperor has no clothes, but that the empire has no tailors.
Cruz, if elected, will have to do his own thinking, to an extent that no American president has had to do since Lincoln. He is intelligent enough and arrogant enough to do that, and he will owe no favors or patronage to the Establishment. He would be the cleverest man to occupy the oval office in a century and a half. He carries no baggage from the Bush administration, and will not invite the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol or Fox News’ Charles Krauthammer to draft an inaugural address, as did Bush in 2004. He won the Iowa caucuses by building the strongest grass-roots network in the country (he claims to have a campaign chairman in every county of the United States), which makes him independent of the party apparatus, such as it is.
Endearing, boyish, photogenic and eloquent, Marco Rubio is the candidate that Central Casting sent the Establishment from the studio pool. Rubio, a middling student at university and a Florida machine politician throughout his career, says his lines well but does not have an original thought about foreign policy. That is why the Establishment likes him. Cruz knows that the Establishment is naked, and is willing to say so. That’s why they don’t like him. They aren’t supposed to. They look at him the way a rice bowl looks at a hammer.
Cruz is not (as the Establishment punditeska suggests) a “Jacksonian” isolationist in the sense of Walter Russell Meade’s use of the term; rather, he is a John Quincy Adams realist in Angelo Codevilla‘s reading. Cruz feels no ideological compulsion to assert America’s world mastery. He is concerned about American security and American power. The Establishment came into being in America’s brief moment at the head of a unipolar world, and is imprinted with that notion the way ducklings are imprinted with the image of their mothers. The world has changed: China is becoming a world power, albeit a world power of a sort the West has trouble understanding, and Russia is fighting for national revival. These things are neither good nor bad for America, but exactly the opposite. From a Cruz administration we would expect the pursuit of American self-interest, which would mean a substantial improvement in military technology as well as collaboration with Russia and China where it suits American interests and opposition where it doesn’t.
I do not mean to suggest that Beijing or Moscow would be happy with a Cruz presidency. For one thing, it is likely that Cruz would try to widen the gap between America’s military technology and the rest of the world’s. But foreign policy, would be calculable rather than chaotic, and that is something America’s competitors could live with.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.