After Iowa, a Three-Man Race: Andy Jackson, Cal Coolidge, and George W.

The leading GOP candidates are channeling the spirits of presidents past.

By John Zmirak Published on February 3, 2016

Ted Cruz’s victory in Iowa changes the game in the 2016 nomination race. “Change” does not mean “clinch.” If Cruz had lost to Trump, his race might well have been over. By triumphing in Iowa despite having flouted the ethanol lobby, Cruz blunted the perception that Trump was a juggernaut, able to shock, mock and berate his way to power. For weeks, Trump’s supporters on social media have been echoing their candidate by calling other contenders (and their partisans) “losers,” suggesting that it was time for Republicans to rally around the “frontrunner.”

That’s all over now. The gold plate has flaked off the giant “T,” and now Trump is just another candidate — one with a long record of ideological flip-flopping, an abrasive (if amusing) personality, and a checkered personal and business history. With all the heaping gobs of free media that Trump has received so far, he still couldn’t win the first contest. That has got to hurt.

Equally important in the long run is the rise of Marco Rubio, who has obviously begun to clear the “establishment” lane in the GOP race. He took 23 percent of the vote, which exceeds the combined votes of his obvious centrist rivals Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Carly Fiorina. TV pundits have already begun to speculate as to when the big-money donors who sustain the GOP center will start pressuring those other candidates to drop out of the race — in order to stop the rise of “insurgent” candidates Cruz and Trump. It’s doubtful that any major figures will bail out before New Hampshire; having put so much into running, they might as well roll the dice. It’s a year full of surprises, which alone should sustain some hope, at least for now.

But these lagging candidates probably won’t make an impact. Rubio is likely to walk away with the mantle of the establishment Republican candidate — which in a year like this might prove a mixed blessing in the end. More important in the short-run is whether Ben Carson stays in the race. Having won 10 percent in Iowa, and drawn many “insurgent” and evangelical voters away from Trump and Cruz, Carson’s choices in the next few primaries might make a difference to significant races in South Carolina and Nevada.

As the three-man contest evolves, personalities could give way to policy discussions. I expect the three candidates to split the vote along three readings of American exceptionalism. I will describe each below and offer historical precedents. Those precedents, I should emphasize, are not offered to suggest that Candidate A is exactly like Historical Figure Y. Often there are deep differences in character and political philosophy between them. The point of contact is their view of American exceptionalism.

Pragmatic Nationalism

Donald Trump has adopted this view, which asserts that national cohesion and solidarity should override economic efficiency — hence tariff barriers and other protectionist measures. It concentrates on American “greatness” in terms of economic muscle, military preparedness and assertiveness on behalf of American interests abroad. It pays scant regard to Constitutional niceties like the Separation of Powers or civil liberties, property rights (see eminent domain) or the dictates of just war teaching — much less the international law that grew out of such Christian roots. Hence Trump’s willingness to kill off the family members of terrorists, something which even embattled Israel, under much greater provocation, has never come close to doing. On this view, America is exceptional because it is big and powerful enough to exempt itself from the rules that bind other countries. For historic parallels, see Aaron Burr, Andrew Jackson.

Traditional Constitutionalism

This worldview, which used to be called more simply “conservatism,” is most clearly represented by Ted Cruz — a man who is ready with a detailed Constitutional justification of his position on any given issue. For him, the U.S. founding was a providential event, and it documents a kind of secular scripture, which we as citizens must revere as the source of our national self-esteem.

Cruz’s economics are more conventionally free market, convinced as he is by the arguments which conservatives have been making since roughly 1932 against the expansion of state control over citizens’ economic and personal lives.

Cruz’s foreign policy is not blatantly amoral like Trump’s, but his vision of what America can achieve is distinctly tinged by an Augustinian sense that we, too are fallen, and sharply limited in what we can achieve in foreign countries with profoundly alien cultures.

On immigration, Cruz seems more outraged by the blatant disregard for law than he is worried by cultural displacement. However, Cruz sees how the growth of government, and disregard for the Constitution (among other key American traditions) is goaded by mass immigration of low-skilled people from countries without our civic heritage, so he seems willing to pare back legal immigration as well. Given forty years of flat wage growth among less-skilled American workers, and the prominence of Muslims whose deepest religious tenets are anti-Constitutional, Cruz’s position here has significant policy overlap with Trump’s, though the reasons underlying it are different.

For this school of thought, America is exceptional because the civic culture that gave it birth was exceptionally compatible with human flourishing. Not every culture on earth, in foreign nations or among potential immigrants, is compatible with our civics. Historic parallels: William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge.

Idealist Internationalism

Of the three, Marco Rubio appears the closest to this view. As with Cruz’s outlook, it is largely free market in outlook but it sees America as exceptional because it is a propositional nation, and its propositions are true — for the whole human race, potentially, as President George W. Bush argued in his Second Inaugural Address. It is our task not simply to stand like Lady Liberty and offer a light to the nations, but to go forth and set a “fire in the mind” (in Bush’s words), exporting if possible democracy and human rights to other lands and cultures, thereby making them our likely allies and partners. This view, which has often been dubbed “neoconservatism,” became prominent during the Cold War, when it offered international Americanism as an alternative to international Communism. (See my 2003 essay, “America the Abstraction.”)

With the fall of Communism and the rise of Islamic jihad, prominent thinkers of the center-right and center-left converged to agree on various forms of this theory as the proper approach to combating Islamist extremism, though they didn’t always agree on how it should be implemented effectively (e.g., the war in Iraq). As Stephen Bannon and Alexander Marlow argue, this theory also has strong implications for immigration policy:

[I]f the issue is saving the world — and it always is — then part of the save-the-world plan means accommodating, and welcoming, refugee flows.

Yes, refugees from Somalia, Syria, anywhere — they all must come here, so that the US can “show leadership.” That is, we must take immigrants by the thousands, even millions, as a way of pointing other countries, as well, to the virtuous path. … Thus it should come as no surprise that National Review’s Johnson reports that one of Rubio’s mentors is former Bush 43 national-security adviser Stephen Hadley. In the White House, Hadley was a champion of open borders, and just recently, he signed a letter with 19 other foreign policy savants, from both parties, calling for the US to take in Syrian refugees.

While Rubio has backed away from the large-scale expansion of low-skill immigrants that was part of his Gang-of-Eight bill, his stance on immigration still bears the stamp of Internationalist optimism about the capacity of America to assimilate migrants from countries with dysfunctional political systems and unfree civic cultures. On this view, America itself is seen as a transformative force, whose philosophical integrity and dynamism renders it almost immune from being itself transformed, by the ideas and habits which large numbers of immigrants bring with them. That’s why Rubio has said that America should welcome Syrian refugees, if it were possible to vet them for current terrorist ties (which he thinks isn’t possible now). A Jackson or a Coolidge would question the wisdom of accepting many thousands of Muslims, with or without terrorist connections.

Here Senator Rubio’s call to unseat Syria’s president Assad is instructive. For the U.S. to cooperate with or even tolerate dictators such as Syria’s Assad (as a lesser evil than the rise of Islamists who might persecute Christians) is for us to admit defeat of our ideals, to surrender our national mission and plunge into moral relativism — suggesting that liberty is only available to certain countries and cultures, especially those with a Christian, or even an Anglo-Protestant heritage. Historical parallels: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George W. Bush.

Of course, on this historical side of the wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria, the nation-building aspirations of most American policymakers have been tempered to one degree or another. None of the three candidates will speak as President Bush spoke before the Iraq War. And all now avoid direct talk of amnesty and recognize the dangers of Muslim refugees. But the deep differences of world view remain, and they will matter. It will be up to conservative media to make sure that these philosophical differences are discussed with sufficient nuance that voters can decide among them wisely.

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  • Clark Coleman

    Great, well-balanced column with plenty of insight.

    In passing, I will note that conservatives are known for learning lessons from experience rather than insisting on continuing the path of an ideologue who has been proven wrong. We look at the failures of liberal programs and believe the failures should be heeded, while the liberals make excuses and promise that they will tweak the programs and all will be well next time. In that light, what can we say about Wilsonian neo-conservatism after our experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya? Where is the learning curve here?

  • Micha_Elyi

    “Idealist internationalism” describes President Kennedy’s foreign policy much more than that of President G.W. Bush’s.

    Ted Cruz bothers me, America has already had one moralizing Southern Baptist as president and that did not turn out well.

    Ben Carson has not repudiated his Seventh-Day Adventist stridently anti-Catholic religion.

  • JohnInFlorida

    “Traditional Constitutionalism –
    This worldview, which used to be called more simply ‘conservatism’ “

    Hear, hear!
    I move that we attempt to discontinue using “conservative” when describing those of us who think along the same lines as Mr. Cruz.
    “Constitutionalist” is much more accurately descriptive of where I (and I believe Cruz as well) stand.

    Conservative has been watered down beyond understanding if JEB!, Kasich, Christie, et. al. can use the word, with a straight face, to describe themselves.

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