Since the start of this blog, I have consistently identified one nagging problem, among many, with the Trump campaign for President: he seems either to not understand, not appreciate, or simply have disdain for, the United States Constitution. I have long thought that this could be a potent line of attack from his opponents, particularly in a Republican primary, where voters tend to respond favorably to arguments based on the Constitution and where President Obama is seen as a serial violator of it. It is good to see that some other commentators are now recognizing this. See a fun piece from S.E. Cupp here and a NYDN editorial here.
The candidate who might be best positioned to come at Trump as an anti-constitutionalist demagogue is Ted Cruz. Yes, Senator Cruz has generally refused to say anything negative about Trump (I have a theory that Trump has secretly promised Cruz a Supreme Court nomination, should Trump win), but he is also skilled at the art of the veiled dig. Yes, Cruz, too, can be a demagogue, but his demagoguery is amateurish when compared to Trump. And yes, a few other candidates, like Chris Christie, can (and should) also launch a credible attack on Trump’s constitutional ignorance. Still, Senator Cruz’s constitutional law bona fides seem, on the surface at least, to be a notch above his rivals – Rehnquist clerk, Texas Solicitor General, successful Supreme Court litigator. Christie is his closest rival in this respect, though Christie also brings prosecutorial experience, as well as the added bonus of being likable. With Senator Cruz’s recent rise in the polls, and Governor Christie’s recent fortunes with the endorsement of prominent New Hampshirites, now might be a good time to start planning an offensive that makes constitutional literacy a focus of their respective claims to superiority among the candidates. More importantly, someone – anyone – should finally be making constitutional literacy a focus of the Presidency.
Ted Cruz’s place among the candidates is not entirely clear. His oratorical skills have been on display, and that has likely helped. But he is not the only candidate with oratorical gifts; Governor Christie’s have also been on display. And as for personalities, humorless-arrogant-jerk is hardly a winner. That part of Ted Cruz is unlikely to change. In this sense, all that distinguishes him from Trump is that Trump has a sense of humor. So Cruz must distinguish himself favorably from Trump in other ways; constitutional knowledge and fidelity could matter to Republican voters. Christie, as I mentioned, seems far more likable, has a wonderful sense of humor (even a self-deprecating one, which is much to his credit) and will connect with a broader swath of Republican voters. And his claim as a constitutionalist with a prosecutor’s perspective could be equally appealing.
So, Senator Cruz, for all of his gifts, remains a troubling candidate. I think he is wrong on some constitutional questions, and I think there are some bizarre and disturbing comments and judgments for which he needs to answer (not the least of which is his appearance and remarks at the National Religious Liberties Conference last month). His nomination could result in catastrophic losses for Republicans. Governor Christie is the far better candidate, and now that he seems to be stepping up his game, perhaps his poll numbers will follow. But calling Donald Trump a liar, a bigot, or even an idiot will not go very far in this cycle. My point here is merely to suggest that making a case for the Constitution – rather than ignoring or disrespecting it – could be a way of appealing to voters who see something interesting in Trump but who ultimately cannot support a candidate who demeans the achievements of American constitutionalism.
Maybe Ted Cruz can make that case. Maybe Chris Christie can. Maybe others can, as well. Anyone who can, should. Republican voters may not ultimately care about whether Trump really believes in conservatism. But they should care about whether he believes in the Constitution.