WASHINGTON — Ted Cruz's victory in Tuesday's Texas Republican runoff for the U.S. Senate nomination is the most impressive triumph yet for the still-strengthening tea party impulse. And Cruz's victory coincides with something conservatives should celebrate, the centennial of the 20th century's most important intra-party struggle. By preventing former President Theodore Roosevelt from capturing the 1912 Republican presidential nomination from President William Howard Taft, the GOP deliberately doomed its chances for holding the presidency but kept its commitment to the Constitution.
Before Cruz, now 41, earned a Harvard law degree magna cum laude, he wrote his Princeton senior thesis on the Constitution's Ninth and 10th Amendments, which if taken seriously would revitalize two bulwarks of liberty — the ideas that the federal government's powers are limited because they are enumerated, and that the enumeration of certain rights does not "deny or disparage others retained by the people." Both ideas are repudiated by today's progressives, as they were by TR, whose Bull Moose Party, the result of his bolt from the GOP, convened in Chicago 100 years ago Sunday — Aug. 5, 1912.
After leaving the presidency in 1909, TR went haywire. He had always chafed under constitutional restraints, but he had remained a Hamiltonian, construing the Constitution expansively but respectfully. By 1912, however, he had become what the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, was — an anti-Madisonian. Both thought the Constitution — the enumeration and separation of powers — intolerably crippled government.
Espousing unconstrained majoritarianism, TR disdained Madison's belief that the ultimate danger is wherever ultimate power resides, which in a democracy is with the majority. He endorsed the recall of state judicial decisions and by September 1912 favored the power to recall all public officials, including the president.
TR's anti-constitutional excesses moved two political heroes to subordinate personal affection to the public interest. New York Sen. Elihu Root had served TR as secretary of war and secretary of state, and was Roosevelt's first choice to succeed him in 1908. Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge had long been one of TR's closest friends. Both sided with Taft.
As the Hudson Institute's William Schambra says (in "The Saviors of the Constitution," National Affairs, Winter 2012, and elsewhere), by their "lonely, principled" stand, Root and Lodge, along with Taft, "denied TR the powerful electoral machinery of the Republican Party, which would almost surely have elected him, and then been turned to securing sweeping alterations" of the Constitution. Wilson won with 41.8 percent of the vote (to TR's 27.4 percent). Taft won 23.2 percent, carrying only Vermont and Utah, but achieved something far grander than a second term — the preservation of the GOP as an intellectual counterbalance to the Democrats' thorough embrace of progressivism and the "living" — actually, disappearing — Constitution.
Today, many of the tea party's academic despisers portray it as anti-democratic and anti-intellectual. Actually, it stands, as the forgotten heroes of 1912 did, with Madison, the most intellectually formidable Founder. He created, and the tea party defends, a constitutional architecture that does not thwart democracy but refines it, on the fact that in a republic, which is defined by the principle of representation, the people do not directly decide issues, they decide who will decide. And the things representatives are permitted to decide are strictly circumscribed by constitutional limits on federal power.
TR sought to make these limits few — and as flimsy as cobwebs when the people chose to amend them by plebiscitary methods. The New Republic, then a voice of progressivism, ridiculed Root for being "committed to the theory of government, based upon natural rights" — the Declaration of Independence's theory of pre-political rights. Schambra, however, argues that for Root and Lodge, as for today's tea party, the rights proclaimed in the Declaration and the restrictions the Constitution imposes on government are inseparably linked, as Root said, to "the end that individual liberty might be preserved."
The GOP's defeat in 1912 — like that in 1964 under Barry Goldwater, whose spirit infuses the tea party — was profoundly constructive. By rejecting TR, it preserved the Constitution from capricious majorities. When Cruz comes to the Senate, he and like-minded Republicans — Utah's Mike Lee, Kentucky's Rand Paul, South Carolina's Jim DeMint, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, Florida's Marco Rubio, and, if they win, Indiana's Richard Mourdock, Arizona's Jeff Flake and perhaps some others — can honor two exemplary senatorial predecessors by forming the small but distinguished Root-Lodge Caucus.
George Will's email address is email@example.com.