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How to Spot a Real Republican Insurgent

Sam Tanenhaus, the author of “The Death of Conservatism” and “Whittaker Chambers,” is working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. He was editor of the New York Times Book Review from 2004 to 2013.
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In case you hadn't noticed, Republican "insurgents" are back. In the previous presidential cycle, the label was stuck on every candidate who wasn’t Mitt Romney. This time, so-called insurgents appear to include everyone not named Jeb Bush -- a group that includes Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal and, of course, Ted Cruz, the first Republican to declare his candidacy for the party's 2016 presidential nomination. 

But what exactly does it mean to be an insurgent running in 2016? The term itself denotes a revolt (or rebellion) against authority -- an accurate description of the first modern insurgent campaign, Barry Goldwater’s run for president in 1964. Goldwater’s Sunbelt libertarianism really did challenge the orthodoxies of consensus liberalism. He was fiercely attacked not only by Democrats but by a series of Republican opponents, each a Northeastern patrician: Henry Cabot Lodge (Massachusetts), Nelson Rockefeller (New York) and William Scranton (Pennsylvania).

Today, as some have pointed out, intramural Republican differences are much milder and murkier. Cruz, for example, claims to be the most un-Bush-like choice, yet his own political grooming took place at Princeton, Harvard Law, the Supreme Court (a clerkship), a high-ticket Beltway law firm and then in the George W. Bush administration.

This isn't to say insurgents are, or should be, hemmed in by boundaries of region and class. Goldwater wasn’t. Even as he drew on the passions of grass-roots factions -- white Southerners alienated by civil-rights legislation and conspiracy-minded anti-Communists in the John Birch Society -- he also attracted intellectuals such as Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley Jr. In fact, top editors and writers at Buckley's National Review began championing Goldwater in the late 1950s and were involved in the Manhattan-based “draft Goldwater” organization that mapped out the winding route to the nomination.

Goldwater’s embrace also included fellow senators. Though often at ideological odds with Republicans -- he was one of only six Republicans to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- Goldwater was a party loyalist. As chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, he worked tirelessly on behalf of his colleagues, amassing a deep store of good will.

As the journalist Richard Rovere wrote at the time of Goldwater's presidential campaign:

Long before anyone felt compelled to take him seriously as a candidate in 1964, he had logged a million miles and made thousands of speeches (the calculations are his) and for this reason was almost certainly justified in saying, as he did last month, "I don't think anyone in this Party knows more Republicans than I do." He has also said, "This accumulation of Republican friends wasn't done with the idea of using it for anything except getting Republicans elected. ... It came as a by-product of my just doing my job as a Republican."

This approach seems the opposite of Cruz's lone-wolf grandstanding. Then again, Cruz has said his model isn’t Goldwater, but Goldwater’s heir, Ronald Reagan. "I am convinced 2016 is going to be an election very much like 1980," Cruz said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. "It's worth remembering, when Reagan ran, Washington despised Reagan."

This is a theme others have been echoing in the week or so since Cruz announced his 2016 candidacy. Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review Online, argued that Reagan, like Cruz, was a long shot and outsider, whose election chances were belittled, first in 1976 and again in 1980.

In fact, Reagan’s viability emerged after his first election, as governor of California, in 1966. As early as 1968, he was swatting away rumors he would settle for the vice presidency, and at the nominating convention that summer he was the first choice for president of many conservatives.

True, Reagan was the underdog when he challenged Gerald Ford in 1976, but Ford was neither an establishment insider nor a strong candidate. The most “accidental” president in U.S. history, he ascended to the White House thanks to the resignations of Vice President Spiro Agnew and then of Richard Nixon. Up to that time, Ford had won no office higher than U.S. representative. And Republicans in Washington collectively bore the Watergate stigma. Reagan, in contrast, was the two-term governor of the most important state and had a large national following. His near defeat of Ford positioned him as the front-runner in the next cycle, even in New York, still a stronghold of the Republican establishment.

Meanwhile, Reagan had shelved the most divisive items on his agenda (including opposition to both Medicare and Social Security) and “came to realize that the enrage quality of the Goldwater campaign -- its extremism and unpopular positions, its nihilistic antagonism toward potential allies -- was a formula for defeat,” the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice has written.

Reagan’s objective was to expand the growing conservative movement, to recruit supporters and form allegiances. This was also true of the Republicans’ most ideologically consistent insurgent in recent years, Ron Paul. Even when he came under attack within his own party, Paul seldom denounced other politicians, and he occasionally joined forces with House Democrats -- for instance, with Barney Frank on drug-law reform.

Two other so-called insurgents, Rand Paul (Ron’s son) and Marco Rubio, who are expected to announce their presidential candidacies this month, also have become bridge-builders. Like Cruz, Paul and Rubio are first-term senators, swept into office on the tide of the Tea Party revolt. But as lawmakers they have emphasized issues that cut across narrow ideological lines -- Paul on prison-sentencing and anti-surveillance legislation, Rubio on immigration reform and income inequality. Both have called for fresher and bolder proposals than Cruz has. 

In the 2016 field, as Jonathan Chait pointed out, Cruz presents himself as “the one Republican too brave and pure to submit to the Obama agenda,” reciting the bill of particulars against Obamacare and the Internal Revenue Service, same-sex marriage and climate-change science more fervently than anyone else. 

This is an insurgency of a kind, but it looks backward rather than forward. Its original author was Newt Gingrich, the House flame-thrower who pioneered what Adam Kushner, writing in the National Journal, has called "the permanent insurgency” in the 1980s and 1990s. Gingrich-style politicians, Kushner wrote, “defined themselves less by their influence behind closed doors and more by their confrontational media message, which they purveyed during bombastic nighttime speeches in the empty chamber, given for the benefit of the C-SPAN cameras that beamed them into more and more homes with the spread of cable.”

Kushner wrote this in October 2013, at the time of the government shutdown orchestrated by Cruz less than a year after he entered the Senate. Was this an insurgent act? Perhaps, but its ultimate objective was not to transform government or even win the political debate. It was instead a pyrotechnical exercise, a shower of sparks that bedazzled, or inflamed, the base, and then guttered out.

Cruz is still pushing an incendiary politics of instant gratification. “We need to reignite the promise of America,” he said on a conservative radio program before he announced his 2016 candidacy. “There is an incredible potential to do so if courageous conservatives will simply stand up.”

The key word is “simply.” The insurgents who created the conservative movement went about their task more seriously. They understood the siege would be long, and that victory, if and when it came, would be measured in small steps. There was nothing simple about it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Sam Tanenhaus at tanenhaus.lit@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net