A long time ago, in the era we now know as B.T. (Before Trump), it was possible to envision a Republican primary campaign that would be a real contest of ideas, a clash of genuine policy visions — and therefore different from the empty I’m-not-Obama, no I’m-not-Obama contest of 2012. My favored scenario would have pitted Marco Rubio against Rand Paul: The former representing a reform-minded conservatism in domestic policy and a hawkish internationalism abroad; the latter representing a more libertarian domestic agenda and a noninterventionist posture overseas.
We’ve had tastes, in the Republican debates, of what that contest would have looked like, mostly when Paul has sniped at Rubio from the corner of the stage. But the Kentucky senator’s moment came and went a year ago; in 2015, like so many others, he’s been Trumped.
Yet the possibility of a real clash of ideas hasn’t gone the way of Paul’s campaign. Instead, if the race came down to the three men currently leading in the national polls, Republican primary voters would be facing their most ideologically consequential choice since 1980. Unlike many G.O.P. campaigns, in which terms like “establishment” and “populist” are mostly about affect and rhetoric, this time the Republican front-runners offer three very different visions for the future of the party.
The first vision is Rubio’s. On domestic policy, his campaign assumes (reasonably) that the party lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential campaigns because Republicans were out of touch with middle-class pocketbook anxieties, and tries to remedy that fault by moving somewhat toward the center on economic policy. Hence his promise of a larger child tax credit, his talk about reinventing higher education, his pledge to reform rather than slash the safety net and his promise of tax credits to help Americans who have benefited from Obamacare to buy health insurance.
Ted Cruz, by contrast, is several ticks to the right on domestic issues, and often closer to Rand Paul; his vision assumes that a more ideological conservatism can carry all before it. His tax plan, which combines a flat tax and a disguised sales tax, would place him well to the right of every recent Republican nominee; he’s attacking Rubio as a squish and sellout on immigration; and his forays on health care and entitlement reform suggest that he’s closer to True Conservative™ orthodoxy on those issues as well.
That contrast extends to foreign policy, where Rubio has been more of an interventionist than Cruz, more open to deploying ground troops against the Islamic State, more willing to topple dictators (Bashar al-Assad in theory, Muammar el-Qaddafi in fact) rather than accepting them as a necessary evil.
The details can be a little fuzzy because nobody, right or left, has a clear plan for how to handle the Middle East. But Rubio’s vision seems generally aligned with George W. Bush’s moralistic, democracy-promoting view of America’s role in the world, while Cruz seems to be trying to devise a distinctive cocktail of Reaganism and Jacksonianism, or a more pro-Israel version of George H.W. Bush-era realism.
And then there is Donald Trump. On foreign policy, he can sound like Paul when he condemns both parties for the Iraq war and blames United States intervention for many of the world’s ills, and like Cruz when he promises to put an end to the Islamic State from the skies. On immigration and trade, he’s offering a fortress-America vision that echoes the 1920s and 1930s more than the Reagan-era G.O.P.
But on other domestic issues, he can sound center-left (he’s no religious conservative, he loves eminent domain, he’s made favorable noises about single payer) or even liberal — particularly on entitlements, where he’s argued that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be protected from any kind of restructuring and reform.
This combination of views isn’t incoherent; it just puts Trump closer to Europe’s nationalist right than it does to most of the post-1960s American conservative tradition. Like France’s National Front or euroskeptic parties elsewhere on the Continent, he’s a candidate of government programs for the old and native-born, high walls against outsiders and a romanticized idea of national greatness. And it turns out that this Old World combination, at this particular moment, has a great deal of New World appeal.
Which makes the looming choice a genuinely fraught one for the future of the party. Rubio aspires to be Reagan (with a dash of Bill Clinton-in-1992 thrown in) but risks being another Dubya. Cruz aspires to be Reagan (with a dash of the elder Bush and Richard Nixon) but might be Barry Goldwater in 1964. And then Trump aspires to be no one but himself, a mash-up of Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Silvio Berlusconi — and Jean-Marie Le Pen.
So a vote for Rubio is a vote for adaptation and ambition — for a conservatism that seeks to reassure the anxious middle on domestic policy and shore up the Pax Americana overseas. A vote for Cruz is a vote for rigor and retrenchment — for a more intensely ideological conservatism at home and a narrower definition of the national interest abroad. A vote for Trump is a vote for rupture — for a conservatism defined more by identity politics than ideology, more by nationalism than libertarianism, more by caudillism than the Constitution.
I have sympathy for all three of these tendencies — if not necessarily the men who currently embody them — and I think the ideal nominee would find a way to synthesize them, to sift the best and the worst of each.
But that nominee may not exist. So it’s up to the voters to choose which Republican future they prefer, from a lineup that offers not just echoes of the same old conservatism, but a real and pressing choice.