The conventional wisdom on the 2016 Republican presidential campaign is that the candidates are dividing into libertarian/conservative/establishment factions, with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky leading the libertarian band, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas leading the conservative grouping, and the establishment still waiting for its standard bearer. Yet there is another divide that is equally important for a Republican Party preparing to emerge from a frustrating eight years under a highly ideological and combative President: expanders vs. purists. In that struggle, it is Rand Paul vs. Ted Cruz.
This is not the old establishment vs. activist divide. The expanders now encompass two large groups — libertarians and the establishment — and a portion of the conservative base that sees the need to broaden the party’s appeal, but which is somewhat uncomfortable with the establishment’s squishiness and the libertarians’ divergence from some traditional party positions. The remaining conservative purists believe the traditional message is all they need to win, and they remain most interested in winning philosophical arguments.
All of this was highlighted at last Saturday’s New Hampshire Freedom Summit, which Citizens United and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation held in Manchester. Among a day’s worth of speakers, Paul and Cruz were the marquee acts. Though their ideological differences were apparent, more interesting was the huge gulf between Paul’s end game and Cruz’s.
Paul’s primary message was that Republicans can bring minorities, young people and independent voters into the party by showing them how their own interests are advanced by a new GOP agenda centered on protecting personal liberty. A GOP rededicated to protecting individuals from the state will win new converts who are hurt by a Leviathan that spies on them, incarcerates their children for decades for minor drug offenses and uses the regulatory state to protect the elites from competition. In Paul’s formulation, the state is the enemy against whom the average American can and will rally.
This is a longstanding libertarian messsage. But Paul has taken a romantic notion and shaped it into an electoral strategy with millions raised to put the plan into action. His visits to Howard University and Cal-Berkeley were not publicity stunts. They were coalition-building exercises. Paul was not preaching purity. Like the Country Club Republicans he disparages, he spoke repeatedly of the need to win elections. His plan for winning, though, is new and untested within the GOP fold.
By contrast, Cruz embraces the GOP’s traditional three-legged stool of economic, social and defense conservatism, and he made a point of saying so on Saturday. He expressed no interest in expanding the party base. His goal is to energize the base that is there. It is his entire political focus, which he made perfectly clear. “I’m spending my time not focusing on Washington, not trying to convince Washington of anything, because they ain’t listening,” said the man sent to Washington to represent the interests of the State of Texas. “What I’m trying to do instead is help energize and mobilize the American people.”
That explains the government shutdown gambit. It explains the firebrand speeches. It explains why he asked attendees to text the word “growth” to a number he gave out, which would make them part of his “grassroots army.” But what is that army going to do?
Cruz thinks the army is going to elect its leader (him) President. But since when has an army of ideologically pure conservatives ever done that? Paul’s strategy is deeply flawed, but without some expansion component, Cruz’s is doomed from the start, just like his filibuster last year. As much attention as Paul and Cruz have received so far, I am unconvinced that either of their strategies is a winning one. There remains plently of room for another candidate with a different vision for how to take the White House in 2016.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His column runs on Thursdays.