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June 24, 2014 12:31 PM An Agenda For: Forever

By Ed Kilgore

You’ll probably hear a lot about Jeffrey Toobin’s long New Yorker profile of Ted Cruz, as well you should. Toobin helps explain Cruz’s deep roots in the Federalist Society and in what might be called the legal wing of the latter-day conservative movement, which in turn positioned him well to become a champion of “constitutional conservatism,” which supplies a theoretical basis for today’s radicalized Right. And Toobin, in a brief reference to the sparse furnishings of Cruz’s Senate office, nicely sums up how “constitutional conservatives” differ from their Reaganite predecessors:

Cruz’s inner office is dominated by a three-panel painting of Ronald Reagan in Berlin, before the Brandenburg Gate. Reagan is Cruz’s hero, though Cruz, at forty-three, is too young ever to have voted for him. Like Reagan, Cruz believes in limited government, but his basis for that belief differs in a significant way from Reagan’s. Reagan thought limited government was a matter of political choice; Cruz believes it is a constitutional mandate.

This helps explain not only why “constitutional conservatives” are so militant, but why they countenance all sorts of deceptive political tactics, from “death panel” smears to various conspiracy theories about the bad faith of the Left. From their point of view, they really do represent the only authentically American point of view on public policy, one that neither social and economic change nor elections nor judicial interpretations nor public opinion should ever, ever be allowed to displace. So psychologically, it’s important to them to undermine any common ground that provides equal standing for other points of view—you know, those that aren’t based on the divinely ordained Word of the Constitution, give or take some unfortunate concessions to slavery. That is ultimately the basis for all the “constitutional conservative” agitation against “compromise,” more than any particular fears about any particular policies or legislation.

Cruz is a natural champion for constitutional conservatism, being a constitutional lawyer with an impressive record of arguing cases before the Supreme Court; the son of a radically conservative evangelical minister; and a resident of a state whose Republican majority is large enough (for the moment, at least) to countenance the kind of rebellion he led against conservative—but not constitutionally conservative—establishment figures like David Dewhurst (Cruz is also lucky to have run for office in a state with a majority vote requirement for party nominations; without it, he would have lost to Dewhurst in the first round in 2012).

And for all the talk of Cruz’ brilliance, he and other constitutional conservatives have the relatively easy task of running on an agenda that never really changes and doesn’t need to justify itself in terms of meeting contemporary national challenges. It’s an agenda for Forever, and so long as the GOP remains a party dependent on an activist base in constant revolt against much of what has happened in America since the end of World War II, it will remain viable.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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