The battle between Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Donald Trump has now divided insurgent Republicans into two camps: those who prize conservative values over all else, and those who prize slapping the establishment over all else. That, in essence, is the dividing line between the two candidates.
Cruz runs as a consistent Constitutional conservative, a man of unwavering principle who will not be silenced by the Republican establishment.
His pitch is that he has stood up to the establishment Republican Party in order to advance conservative principle, even over their objections; that he will never abandon central notions of limited government and personal liberty. Cruz’s motivation for running is to restore the primacy of America’s founding philosophy.
Trump, by contrast, runs as a dynamite stick in the establishment machine, an out-of-nowhere candidate ready to wreak havoc on the levers of power.
Trump isn’t particularly conservative – he’s far closer to John McCain and Mitt Romney than to Cruz on the issues – but he does pledge to put the wood to the consultant class, the media, and the Republicans who have kowtowed to Democrats for the sake of compromise.
The battle between the two, then, is one of priorities. Do conservatives care more about nominating someone who loves conservatism, or do they care more about nominating someone who will destroy the establishment?
Now, both Cruz and Trump say they’re conservative and antiestablishment.
Cruz says that by his very nomination, the establishment GOP will be broken. And he has evidence to back up this notion: the establishment hates Cruz. That’s why Iowa Governor Terry Branstad despises Cruz and said today he wants him defeated – because Cruz won’t back Branstad’s ethanol bamboozle. That’s why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, no friend to birther theories, has outright refused to push forward a Senate resolution declaring Cruz eligible for the presidency. That’s why National Review reported earlier this week, “The developing feeling among House Republicans? Donald Trump is preferable to Ted Cruz.”
Establishment leaders know that Trump isn’t motivated by conservatism so much as a desire to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, and they are ready to provide him ammunition from their ideological arsenal in that war. They know that Cruz has his own ideological arsenal they can’t penetrate. That frightens them.
Trump, meanwhile, has struggled to find the ideological footing to make the parallel claim that he’s both antiestablishment and conservative.
That’s why it’s so brilliant for Trump to recruit Tea Party icon Sarah Palin. Palin represents a unification of the antiestablishment attitude with the conservative values for the grassroots. Those who hated Sarah Palin also hate Trump, generally speaking: those who mocked her accent mock his; those who mocked her speaking patterns mock his; those who scoffed at her political incorrectness laugh at his. But Palin is unwaveringly conservative, unlike the pro-campaign finance reform, semi-pro-choice, pro-eminent domain, pro-entitlement programs Trump. By grabbing an endorsement from Palin, Trump shores up his ideological rear.
Overall, most conservatives understand that Cruz is more conservative than Trump, and most voters believe – wrongly, in my view — that Trump represents more of a threat to the establishment than Cruz. Those dueling perceptions have spurred a war between the two candidates, in which Trump derides Cruz as a secret establishment insider, and Cruz derides Trump as a secret non-conservative.
So far, Trump has the upper hand. That’s because Cruz is in the Senate, even if all the other Senators hate him; he appears like more of an insider, even though Trump is far less hated by insiders than Cruz. And Trump grabbing Palin’s endorsement helps shore up his defenses against Cruz’s assault on his pseudo-conservatism, even as it reinforces his antiestablishment status.
The choice, in the end, will be that of voters. Will they pick the proven conservative the establishment hates in Cruz? Or will they pick the ultimate outsider the establishment strongly dislikes in Trump?
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News, Editor-in-Chief of DailyWire.com, and The New York Times bestselling author, most recently, of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.