Two newcomers, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, are the hottest figures in the dominant conservative wing of the Republican Party. In markedly different ways, they both claim to be the heirs to the party’s contemporary patron saint, Ronald Reagan.
In a short time, these first-term lawmakers have electrified elements of the party’s base and rattled the Senate establishment. The top two Republican leaders in the chamber, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas, have had to defer to the political popularity of their junior colleagues.
Both are outside the party mainstream, rock stars in selective conservative circles, with an eye on the 2016 presidential nomination and on each other.
They are also profoundly different in style and substance. They reflect a party and movement that are struggling to reshape themselves despite internal contradictions.
In the next presidential race, conservatives are determined to tap one of their own. Perhaps someone else will emerge, but for now — to borrow an analogy from college basketball’s March Madness — Paul, 51, and Cruz, 43, would be the top two seeds in the conservative bracket.
They are a vivid contrast. Paul is more collegial, less ornery than his father, Ron, a former Texas congressman and presidential candidate.
Cruz is off-the-charts smart, a champion debater and an in-your-face politician. He is the most unpopular member of the Senate Republican Caucus, a badge of honor with grass-roots conservatives.
Paul, building on his father’s campaign, has much more of a network around the country. Cruz can light up a stage and is more likely to energize social conservatives.
The policy differences between the two movement conservatives are equally striking.
Paul is a libertarian, suspicious of almost any government; Cruz espouses a more muscular conservatism, bending policies and programs to a right-wing agenda. He envisions awakening what he believes to be a dormant conservative majority.
The Kentucky lawmaker wants to remake the Republican Party by reaching out to its disparate elements. He has courted black voters and, last week, brought his critique of President Barack Obama’s domestic eavesdropping to the University of California at Berkeley, the mecca of the American left.
He has called for “leniency” for Edward Snowden, who leaked documents about the National Security Agency’s huge spying operations at home and abroad.
Cruz and Paul are even further apart on. Cruz is a national-security hardliner. In a speech in December, he lamented that the United States under Obama “is receding from a global leadership.” He sounds like a neoconservative.
Paul is contemptuous of the interventionist neoconservatives, a school of thought that, he said, “beats its chest and seeks to spread worldwide enlightenment.” War, he said, is their “preferred option.”
He wants the U.S. to stop playing global cop. Last week, he was one of only 17 senators who refused to sign a politically appealing resolution warning Iran of consequences if it doesn’t abandon its nuclear designs.
Look for Cruz to moderate his views as conservatives, exhausted by more than a decade of war, move closer to Paul’s neo-isolationist views.
And look for both to invoke the Gipper as the inspiration for their 2016 candidacies.
“Cruz and Paul represent two big strains of American conservatism,” says Craig Shirley, a former Reagan adviser. “Ironically, both can find solace in Reagan’s words and deeds.”
Reagan once called libertarianism “the very heart and soul of conservatism.” He also favored a muscular national defense (though he regretted his decision to commit forces to Lebanon) and an activist conservative government.
Between Paul and Cruz, Shirley says, “somewhere in the middle is Reagan.”