In all the extensive discussion of late about Donald Trump’s alleged “centrism,” or “normalcy,” or whatever you choose to call it, the question that must be asked is: Compared to what? Certainly compared to some hellscape where Stephen Bannon is directing red-hatted bullyboys to beat up “enemy” reporters or fight anti-Trump protesters in the streets, everything is relatively calm. America is still recognizable as America. But the exultation in Wall Street and Beltway circles over Trump’s decision to launch an attack on Syria as a sign that he’s not Mussolini is a bit odd, to say the least. And the prominence in the administration and Congress of conservative ideologues who might have been considered a bit out-there before Trump came along is a reminder that disturbingly extremist tendencies in the GOP were not unknown before 2016.
As Brian Beutler put it earlier this week:
It is strange … to describe the combined law enforcement policy of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, economic policy of adviser Gary Cohn, and foreign policy of Trump’s Twitter feed and the military generals in his good graces as “centrism.”
And so before we all lose our bearings, it might be useful to answer the “compared to what?” question by asking ourselves what Washington would be like right now if Trump’s closest competitor in the Republican Party primaries were in the Oval Office right now (with everything else, including the composition of Congress, being more or less the same).
The simple and revealing answer is that a Ted Cruz presidency would probably be an awful lot like the Trump presidency so far. For those who remember how “out there” Cruz was considered when he first decided to run for the presidency in early 2015, that is an eye-opener indeed.
The more conventionally conservative part of Trump’s original plans for the presidency would have most definitely been advanced by a President Cruz: radical regulatory “reform,” an “originalist” for the Supreme Court, and an assault on the paltry Wall Street reforms of the Obama administration. Mick Mulvaney’s budget outline for fiscal year 2018 is precisely the sort of plan offering deep cuts in nondefense discretionary spending and a sharp boost in funding for the Pentagon that Cruz proposed in his own campaign; there is significant overlap in the programs and agencies he wanted to kill and those Trump is proposing to kill right now.
On the big initial legislative fight of the Trump era, the White House has wound up very close to Ted Cruz’ starting point on repealing and replacing Obamacare. Cruz is closely aligned to the House Freedom Caucus members who are essentially driving the health-policy bus at this point. And if there is ever a consensus bill that can command enough Republican support to get through Congress, it will likely adopt Cruz’s proposal to ignore Senate budget rules and repeal Obamacare regulations via a reconciliation bill that requires no Democratic votes.
On tax policy, candidates Cruz and Trump took somewhat different tacks to enacting huge and regressive tax cuts: Trump’s involved straightforward cuts in individual and corporate rates, while Cruz embraced a single 10 percent income-tax rate and then a value-added tax that would replace both corporate and payroll taxes. It’s very likely President Cruz would have had to modify the controversial and complicated VAT (like Paul Ryan’s tax proposal, it had a “border adjustment” feature that many key interests don’t like) and embrace something closer to Trump’s plan and those of other congressional Republicans. But there is zero basic philosophical disagreement among any leading Republicans about the distributional effects of their tax plans (most of the benefits targeted to high earners and corporations) — or about the ready availability of the supply-side pixie dust of “dynamic scoring” to “pay for” any tax cuts that are not offset by spending cuts.
But aside from standard fiscal and economic policy, what about all that crazy “nationalist” stuff Trump has embraced? Surely President Cruz would not have gone there?
Don’t be so sure. While Cruz never attacked NAFTA or trade liberalization generally, he did come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2015. On immigration policy, Cruz spent a good part of the 2016 campaign cozying up to Trump’s hard-core position. By the time the later primaries rolled around, the Texan almost sounded like he was trying to get to Trump’s right on the issue:
In an interview with Fox News, host Bill O’Reilly asked Mr. Cruz whether he would “round up all 12 million illegal aliens here, and if so, how?”
Mr. Cruz replied, “yes, we should deport them. We should build a wall, we should triple the Border Patrol. Federal law requires that anyone here illegally that’s apprehended should be deported.”
That wasn’t the only topic where Trump and then Cruz exemplified a trend among conservatives and Republicans generally. Cruz was a solid recruit to Jeff Session’s retrograde effort to kill bipartisan criminal-justice reform efforts in the Senate last year. And even on that ultimate outlier proposal from Trump, the Muslim travel ban, Cruz made sure it was clear he had an alternative plan to achieve similar results:
Instead of joining the Trump critics, Cruz tried to tout his own proposals to restrict the flow of refugees: a three-year moratorium on any coming from nations where Islamic State forces are wreaking havoc, allowing governors to opt out of receiving any refugees and revoking citizenship for any American who travels abroad in support of Islamic State forces.
Again, that’s close to the legal ground the Trump administration has now retreated to after it became obvious a flat Muslim ban could not possibly survive judicial scrutiny.
Would Ted Cruz have launched cruise missiles at Syria on April 6? That’s harder to say, though again, Cruz and Trump had similar approaches to the Assad regime and ISIS — prioritize the destruction of the latter, even if that meant tolerating the former — during the campaign. And in offering guarded support for Trump’s action, Cruz took virtually the same Jacksonian tack as Trump himself in justifying a flip-flop from opposition to a similar proposal considered by Barack Obama in 2013:
With eight years of Barack Obama as president, what we saw was a weak president whose word did not mean anything. Our friends did not trust us, and our enemies did not fear us.
In other words, the U.S. needed to attack Syria not to topple Assad, but to reestablish the credibility of our threats to use deadly force when needed.
All in all, there is simply not a lot of evidence that a Cruz administration would have governed much differently than a Trump administration. There would have even been one more Goldman Sachs veteran in a Cruz White House: his wife, Heidi.
Does that mean Trump is now “normal”? Again, it depends on the context you choose. Ted Cruz represented the outward fringe of conservative thinking before Trump — a radical who earned extraordinary disdain from Establishment Republicans and from his Senate colleagues, not least because he made common cause with House conservatives and inspired them to threaten and even execute a government shutdown that congressional GOP leaders very much wanted to avoid. There was as much mutual disdain between Cruz and party leaders as there was more recently between Steve Bannon and Paul Ryan.
Perhaps Cruz and Trump simply represent stylistic differences between two leaders of a harsh new strain of race-inflected conservatism that became dominant so quickly that it commanded 70 percent of the total Republican primary vote in 2016 (Trump got 45 percent and Cruz 25 percent). It would still be dominant if there was no Bannon in the White House and no crude materialist with a reputation for sexism to whom he was reporting. There’s nothing “normal” or reassuring about that reality.