The Corner

Politics & Policy

Is Ted Cruz a National Conservative?

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx) questions former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who is President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development, at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, March 23, 2021. (Jim Lo Scalzo /Pool via Reuters)

Orlando, Fla. — Out of the six keynote speakers at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Fla., this week — Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Glenn Loury, Peter Thiel, and J. D. Vance — the junior senator from Texas seems possibly the most out of place. Hawley has been a champion of the kind of nationalist conservatism that this conference is dedicated to advancing since well before he was elected to the Senate, co-authoring a book on Teddy Roosevelt in 2008. Rubio was once a darling of the reform-conservative movement, championing a number of pro-family initiatives that broke with traditional GOP orthodoxy. Loury is a prominent critic of critical race theory and other campus ideologies that preoccupy national conservatives. Thiel is the nationalist movement’s foremost financial backer. Vance is his foremost political protégé. But it’s not entirely clear why Cruz, a Tea Party–backed candidate who never appeared particularly interested in the conference’s brand of right-wing politics, is here.

Cruz may be a recent convert. People have genuine, good-faith changes of heart all the time. My own politics have shifted significantly in recent years — that is often a normal, rational response to being exposed to new information and circumstances. But the senator’s speech, which was largely a rerun of the old conservative hits — a jab at Jimmy Carter, quotes from Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech, and a reminder that Democrats were the slave-owning party and thus “the real racists” — left me with more questions than answers. 

The stated purpose of the National Conservatism Conference is to forge a new way forward for the American Right. “This conference,” as Marco Rubio said during his virtual address this morning, “is about defining what it means to be a conservative in the 21st century. Because yesterday is over; it’s never going to return. Our challenge now is to take the eternal principles of the past and apply them to the challenges of the present to chart the right course for our country.” In other words, the shared goal of the event is to build a distinctly different kind of conservatism from the one that has dominated in recent decades. 

It’s not entirely clear that Cruz understands that project. Nothing about the substance of his speech pointed to anything that different from the kind of conservatism he ran on in 2012. The definition of nationalist populism he offered in his address was “unapologetically defending the United States of America” and “standing with working men and women” — both noble goals, but far too vague to actually distinguish this ostensibly new political doctrine from anything that existed in the past. Reagan saw himself as unapologetically defending the United States of America and standing with its working men and women, too; so did both Bushes. How, exactly, is Cruz’s approach different from his predecessors’? 

Cruz offered slightly more detail when it came to the question of what nationalism and populism are not, but those details did not inspire much more confidence in his grasp of the conference that he was addressing. Nationalism is not “a recipe for right-wing big government,” “protectionism,” or “isolationism,” he argued. But regardless of what one thinks of national conservatism’s policy prescriptions on the merits, the movement’s core critiques of mainstream conservatism are that the Right is too afraid of wielding government power, too dogmatically committed to free trade, and too adventurist in its foreign policy. “Big government,” “protectionism,” and “isolationism” might not always be the best descriptions of those impulses, but neither is it accurate to say that the New Right is definitively not those things.

If it is not different on trade, foreign policy, or the role of government, then what makes Cruz’s national conservatism different from, say, his 2012-era Tea Party conservatism? The conversations I’ve had with a number of conference attendees throughout the day suggest I am not the only one asking this question. Save for the specific details — references to critical race theory, the coronavirus, and so on — very little in his remarks would have been out of place in a Republican stump speech from a decade ago. There’s nothing wrong with that on its face — neither Cruz nor anyone else is obligated to agree with the nationalist policy prescriptions on much of anything. Plenty of smart conservatives are critical of the ideas being presented at this conference. The difference is that most of them aren’t simultaneously giving keynote addresses.

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