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Ted Cruz and the Politics of Imprudence

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial responding to claims made by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The editorial is worth reading for a couple of reasons.

The first is that it offers a useful correction to Senator Cruz’s effort to rewrite history when it comes to his role in the recent gun-control debate. The issue at hand is that Cruz, along with Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul, wanted to filibuster a bill expanding background checks rather than allow it to come to a vote. The Journal rightly criticized this tactic as self-destructive, since it would allow Democrats to portray Republicans as obstructionists for blocking Senate debate and a vote. Fortunately, the gambit by Cruz & Company failed. The measure was voted on and it went down to defeat. Yet Cruz, in a speech to FreedomWorks, “now wants to take credit for that victory when he opposed the strategy that led to it,” in the words of the Journal.

This is foolish on several fronts, not the least of which is that Cruz’s assertion is so easy to disprove.

But this episode touches on a deeper matter, which is the habit some on the right have of confusing principled convictions with self-destructive tactics. Rather than selectively picking the ground on which to fight, they seem to relish brinksmanship and conflict, even if they lose those confrontations legislatively and in the court of public opinion. But what makes this whole thing slightly bizarre is that in the process the self-styled purists accuse those who oppose them as being (in Cruz’s elegant description) “a bunch of squishes.”

It takes a person of unusual ideological brittleness to mock those who are intelligent enough not to join a lawmaker and his colleagues in their version of Pickett’s Charge. The issue here isn’t who is more principled, since it’s not particularly principled to lose in a manner that sets back one’s cause. The issue is who is wiser. (Kimberley Strassel dismantles Senator Cruz’s claims in her most recent Potomac Watch column.)

Senator Cruz calls himself a conservative. So are many on the right who disagree with his tactics. Mr. Cruz might also want to introduce himself to an ancient and conservative virtue, prudence. The Lincoln biographer Allen Guelzo wrote a short essay in 2006 on “The Prudence of Abraham Lincoln,” in which he said this about America’s greatest president (and America’s greatest Republican):

Lincoln insisted that he “regarded prudence in all respect as one of the cardinal virtues,” and he hoped, as president, that “it will appear that we have practiced prudence” in the management of public affairs. Even in the midst of the Civil War, he promised that the war would be carried forward “consistently with the prudence…which ought always to regulate the public service,” and without allowing it to degenerate “into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.” Lincoln had little notion that, over the course of a hundred and fifty years, this commitment to prudence would become a source of condemnation rather than approval.

For some, prudence is still a source of condemnation rather than approval. It was unwise then; and it’s unwise now. 



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