"If you want someone to grab a beer with," Ted Cruz said during the third Republican presidential debate last October, "I may not be that guy. But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done."
The president as Uber driver is a refreshingly modest view of the job, especially compared to the grandiose dreams of Donald Trump. The boastful billionaire probably would not drive you home, and he definitely would not have a beer with you. Although he once had a vodka named after him, Trump does not drink, which may be just as well, given the appalling things he says when he's sober.
Trump's impromptu approach to public policy suggests that if he were in the driver's seat, he would be guided by nothing but his own whims. Cruz, by contrast, assures us that his map would be the Constitution, and that difference alone makes him clearly preferable to the Republican front-runner.
"I've been passionate my whole life about the Constitution," the Texas senator says, and he seems to mean it. Cruz's campaign website mentions the Constitution more than 1,300 times, compared to the Trump site's paltry 35.
The difference is qualitative as well as quantitative. Given the blatantly unconstitutional policies Trump has endorsed, such as censoring the Internet, closing down mosques, and barring Muslims from entering the country, I doubt he has read the Constitution. If he did, it did not make much of an impression.
Cruz, by contrast, is a Harvard Law School graduate who clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and argued nine cases before the Supreme Court as the solicitor general of Texas. "We will defend the Constitution, every single word of it," he said during the September 16 GOP debate, and he has shown a broader interest in that task than most politicians.
In addition to defending the Second Amendment, as every Republican candidate is expected to do, Cruz has opposed the federal government's mass collection of our phone records, the indefinite detention of Americans deemed threats to national security, and a presidential license to kill suspected terrorists on U.S. soil. He has castigated Democrats for trying to suppress political speech in the name of fighting corruption and criticized Republicans as well as Democrats for abusing executive power (although with considerably less specificity).
Cruz, who promises to "carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion," concedes that he would need congressional authorization for such a war. "It should absolutely take congressional approval," he told ABC News in 2014.
Cruz understands that what the Constitution omits is at least as important as what it says. Declaring that he wants to "protect the people by rolling back the federal government to the functions the Constitution sets out," he lists four federal departments, one agency, and 25 programs that he would eliminate. I doubt Cruz would get far with his list, which in any case would hardly restore the federal government to its constitutional limits. But at least he aspires to that goal, even if he forgets his fiscal conservatism and his determination to shrink government when he talks about the military.
Cruz's dedication to the Constitution is by no means completely consistent. Among other things, he supports the constitutionally unauthorized war on drugs (although he says states should be free to legalize marijuana); touts his defense of the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which is grounded in an absurdly broad reading of the federal power to regulate interstate commerce; and brags about sponsoring the Expatriate Terrorist Act, which would strip Americans of their citizenship without due process.
Despite such exceptions, Cruz is clearly more inclined to recognize and respect limits on the federal government's power than Trump or either of the two remaining Democrats. For libertarians and constitutionalists, he is the least scary of the bunch.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Cruz's Constitutionalism Trumps Trump's Trumpism".