Cruz Courts Liberty Movement in Iowa

Tea Party champion and conservative firebrand Ted Cruz may be ready to embrace his libertarian side – and he may need to, if he hopes to find a path from Iowa to the White House.

As it turns out, the death of the Liberty Movement in Iowa may have been greatly exaggerated. While an establishment resurgence in 2014 spearheaded by Governor Terry Branstad succeeded in purging the Ron Paul element from the leadership of the Republican Party of Iowa, members of the state’s robust and often-boisterous Liberty Movement are turning their attention to greater things – namely, the 2016 presidential cycle.

Still reveling in the unexpected victory of libertarian-leaning Congressman Rod Blum in what had been a heavily Democratic eastern Iowa district, the Liberty contingent is starting to have conversations about how much effort and energy should be poured into a presidential race that – for the first time in a decade – will not feature Rep. Ron Paul.

Paul, who retired from Congress in 2013 but continues to make his presence on the political landscape felt through his new network, will presumably pass his organizational structure and much of his rabid base of support on to his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky; but many folks in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa think it may be a tougher handoff than many would surmise.

Heather Stancil, Co-Chair of the Madison County GOP and a Ron Paul supporter in 2012, still has some reservations about a Rand Paul candidacy. “Rand seems too comfortable with those who compromise their principles,” said Stancil, echoing widespread concern over the younger Paul’s endorsement of politicians that some see as hostile to the conservative base. Kara Hadley, a central Iowa activist who identifies closely with the liberty wing of the party, is also concerned with some of Paul’s associations. “Rand supported Mitch McConnell, and I think that’s crazy,” said Hadley. “I think that Rand’s trying to play the game, and I know that a lot of people are just tired of the game.” She also feels that Rand is not working to lock down support from the conservatarian coalition that his father helped spawn within the Republican Party, but is “taking his father’s legacy for granted.”

With the apparent reluctance of many libertarian voters to “stand with Rand”, one would think that other 2016 hopefuls would be quick to court members of the Liberty Movement, 25,000 of whom helped propel Ron Paul to a close third-place finish in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. But that, too, may be a tall order for many candidates.

For as much as figures like Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, and others have helped mainstream the Ron Paul revolution, there remains some simmering resentment between the frequently-warring factions of the Iowa GOP – much of which is still directed at young libertarians who turned the party structure upside-down in 2012. Potential 2016 contenders will have to weigh the benefit of wooing liberty voters, against the cost of an association that many prominent Iowa Republicans – including Governor Branstad and Rep. Steve King – find troublesome.

Compounding this risk is the fact that Ron Paul Republicans nationwide have earned a reputation as hard-line, skeptical, and often combative – though also intensely loyal to those they see as representing their ideals. Iowa Sen. Jason Schultz, a 2012 Ron Paul backer, acknowledges that, though it’s still too early for people to take sides, the Liberty Movement is paying attention to the rapidly-expanding 2016 field. “Liberty folks are better informed, better engaged, and more mature political activists, in my experience, and I think they’re watching”, said Schultz.

In other words, it’s a hard crowd to sell.

If recent actions are any indicator, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – a Tea Party conservative with libertarian leanings – is out to prove that he’s up to the challenge. Cruz, whose Senate candidacy was endorsed by Ron Paul, has been working to make inroads with the largely-overlooked Liberty constituency in Iowa.

Last August, Cruz sat down with a handful of influential conservatarian activists in Ames to test the presidential waters. He fielded a wide variety of policy and strategy questions, but broke stride during a response on government spending to praise Paul and his followers, while taking a swipe at the suppression of Ron Paul delegates at the Republican National Convention in 2012. “Ron Paul is someone I admire and respect, I think he was a powerful voice for liberty – still is. And I think he energized an army of activists across this country,” said Cruz. “One of the stupidest things Republicans did in 2012, was try to kick the Ron Paul people in the teeth. It doesn’t make any sense if you want people to be energized and engaged, to go after them and treat them as the enemy.”

Cruz has also taken the time to campaign with liberty candidates in Iowa, and his Jobs, Growth, and Freedom Fund recently made a major contribution to conservatarian state PAC Liberty Iowa – tied, in fact, for the Fund’s largest contribution to any person or group nationwide. Cruz has also reached out to liberty leaders in the state to set up meetings later this month when he travels to Des Moines for the Iowa Freedom Summit.

These recent moves, along with his dedication to hard-right policies in Washington, have already started to catch the eye of some of Iowa’s liberty activists. Schultz, who calls Cruz a “rising star” in the party, started paying attention to the Texas Senator during Cruz’s controversial not-quite-a-filibuster in 2013. He was impressed with what he saw. “It gave hope and energy to the base, that somebody was speaking for them,” says Schultz of the 21-hour floor speech. Other liberty activists registered a connection with Cruz based upon his opposition to Obamacare, Common Core, and Net Neutrality legislation. They are also supportive of his habitual opposition to increasing the size and scope of government, campaigns for which Team Cruz often utilizes trendy hashtag #makeDClisten.

Adil Khan, Executive Director of Liberty Iowa, thinks that Cruz’s role in the government shutdown may actually help him woo liberty activists, whose penchant for controversy and fierce opposition to government growth are becoming fashionable among millennial conservatives. He believes there could be interest in a Cruz candidacy within the Liberty Movement, while acknowledging the fact that Cruz will not start out with the immediate advantages of his Senate counterpart, Rand Paul. “Cruz has an uphill battle because he doesn’t inherit Ron Paul’s base automatically, he has to fight for each and every member,” said Khan. “But I think there are a lot of principled stances he’s taken…that a lot of people admire. That’s what they used to see in Ron – taking those principled, hard stances and not just backing the establishment every time.”

Others are more impressed with Cruz’s personal qualities. Hadley recalls, “I’ve seen the little things that he’s done, where he’s spoken and then gone around and thanked the staff that waited on the tables, people like him just don’t go and do that. That’s a huge quality.”

Not everyone, though, is sold on the Texas firebrand’s style. Former GOP State Central Committee member Tony Krebsbach, who manned the Rand Paul table at last year’s Family Leadership Summit in Ames, thinks that Cruz might struggle to appeal to some libertarians because of his tendency to cater more to mainline conservatives with his rhetoric. With regard to policy, he sees Rand as being the last stop for the traditionally-purist Liberty Movement. “The reasons that a lot of Ron Paul people don’t support Rand, would be the same reasons I think they would have a hard time supporting Ted Cruz,” said Krebsbach. While acknowledging that Cruz would be his top candidate if Paul were not likely to run, Krebsbach finds Cruz’s style to be overly-abrasive, and questions whether such a style can appeal to Democrats and Independents who might otherwise be open to libertarian principles and policies.

Others have similar concerns, worrying that the government shutdown, while inspiring the conservative base, might not have been effective at expanding that base by enticing independent voters into the GOP – something they see as a very positive component of Rand Paul’s electoral strategy. Some activists are also concerned that Cruz’s junior status – he is still serving his first term in the Senate – could dampen his appeal to some liberty voters who prefer a longer track record with which to vet candidates.

But one thing is for sure, those searching for distinctions between the two conservatarian champions will have the opportunity to find out more, as Cruz and Paul are certain to be a frequent presence in Iowa between now and the time each decides on a presidential run. Those in Ron Paul’s Liberty Movement will, for the first time, face a choice with regard to the White House – and they plan to do their homework on Cruz.

“It will be interesting to find out what happens when Cruz comes to Iowa and some of the hard questions start coming out like, ‘how involved will government get in marriage?’ and ‘how many bases are we going to withdraw from overseas?’ Those are questions that contrast Rand from a lot of candidates, so to find out where Cruz will come out on these, I think that’s going to come out in 2016,” concludes Khan. “It will be interesting to hear the difference in rhetoric, but in the end, when it comes to principle, when it comes down to the core votes, I don’t think there’s that much difference between the two.”

America Isn’t Strong Enough For Torture

Torture. Just hearing that word is enough to give one pause. It’s a bit of a superlative for pain – a word reserved for those times when “hurt”, “suffering,” and “agony” just don’t cover it. The word carries with it images of gory slasher films and whispered stories from Soviet gulags. It’s a vestige of darker times, undeserving of any place in the greatest nation in the history of the world. It’s something that is at least as universally-condemned as child molestation and cold-blooded murder.

Or was, until a few weeks ago.

With the release of classified CIA documents detailing “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by American operatives in the so-called War on Terror, a new debate has been sparked. As with every other issue that hits the headlines these days, most folks formed an opinion within milliseconds and took to social media to express it faster than you can say “Guantanamo”.

As I read the reports and articles swirling around the netscape, I was tempted to do the same. After all, it was becoming clear where the lines were forming – on one side there were traditional national-defense conservatives, and on the other side was a coalition of bleeding-heart liberals, civil libertarians, and… Ted Cruz?

In response to a related question during an appearance at the Heritage Foundation, Sen. Cruz staked out an unambiguous moral stance against torture, and so doing, may have surprisingly set himself in opposition to many within the oft-referenced moral majority of the GOP. Cruz, in fact, was essentially the only potential 2016 heavyweight to make much noise on the issue at all.

But is the moral acceptability of torturing defenseless captives something that we can afford to be silent about? If this doesn’t qualify as a defining issue for the nation founded to be the Shining City on a Hill, what does?

National defense conservatives will be quick to note that many definitions of “torture” would not include some of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed against CIA-held prisoners. They will insist that water boarding, cold detention cells, and forced rectal feeding are not worthy of comparison to the fingernail-pulling, flesh-burning, bone-breaking horrors experienced by prisoners of war and political detainees in other countries at different times between the Spanish Inquisition and the Vietnam War. And they might be right, depending on one’s own definitions. That’s a worthwhile objection, or at least an argument worth having.

But that’s not the first argument on the table.

The question at the forefront of the American moral conversation is this: if we agree that a given act is torture, is it ever morally permissible?

To say that such discussions are even going on around dining room tables and facebook threads here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave is an embarrassment to our Founding Fathers, who faced existential threats just as we do, but still managed to maintain their honor. George Washington, who would have faced a traitor’s death if captured by the British during the Revolutionary War, still admonished his troops to treat captives with decency, and considered abuse of prisoners a national disgrace. In a charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force in September of 1775, he wrote,

Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”

Washington was no fool. Having commanded troops in the brutal French and Indian War, he knew that torturing enemies could yield valuable strategic information that could save American lives. But he believed that the moral cost of such an action outweighed any potential benefit derived. Washington’s objection wasn’t based on some misguided chivalry, but on his absolute belief in the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, which provide for violence in self-defense, but never for abuse of the helpless.

Since that time, America has been a beacon of hope, where justice and tolerance reigned supreme, and where persecuted immigrants could find respite from the abuse they had suffered at the hands of tormentors in darker parts of the world.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to hear from a former German POW from WWII – we’ll call him Eric – who had emigrated to the United States after the war. Now a kindly, grey-headed gentlemen in his sunset years, Eric recounted the story of his capture by American forces in North Africa during Operation Torch in 1942. He said that when he was brought to the American internment camp, he was absolutely terrified. Prior to his capture, his superior officers had warned him of the brutality of the Americans: he would do well, they insisted, to take his own life if cornered – it would be a much better fate than the torture he would surely suffer if taken alive.

Eric was led to a small cell with a clean bed, and then locked in for the night. He didn’t sleep, instead sitting awake wondering what torments awaited him at the hands of his captors. The next morning the door opened and a plate of food dropped in. Not rotten, maggot-ridden scraps, but a satisfying meal, complete with a piece of real chocolate. He didn’t take the food, convinced it was poison. The next day the process was repeated, and again the terrified prisoner refused to take any comfort, believing that his captors were just trying to “soften him up” before the torture began. It never came. After two weeks of fresh food and clean sheets and no abuse, Eric finally came to the realization that “Those sons of (expletive deleted) lied to me.” His Wehrmacht officers had lied to their soldiers about the brutality of the Americans to stave off any thoughts of surrender and encourage them to fight to the last man. It was then he realized that there was something different about America, something great. After the war he returned to Germany, found his family, and came to the United States to start a new life.

While there were certainly examples of prisoner abuse by the Western Allies as well, military directives against such behavior ensured that they were the exception, not the rule. Soldiers who engaged in torture could face court-martial if their actions were discovered. We considered ourselves the moral standard-bearers in the war, and to this day still publicize stories of the mistreatment of our soldiers – including Olympic athlete and war hero Louis Zamperini, subject of the best-selling book and recently-released major motion picture Unbroken – in order to distinguish ourselves from our enemies. Things like this separated us from them. We’re Americans, we don’t torture people.

The Greatest Generation, who endured every hardship the world could throw at them, knew that America’s strength lay in our goodness, and they dare not sacrifice that moral high ground for flimsy and unreliable bits of information. While we fought from the side of right, neither German Nazism, nor Japanese Imperialism, nor Soviet Communism could destroy us.

But America is not strong enough for torture. We can face any hardship with defiance, but we cannot face ourselves in the mirror if we become a people so desperate as to torture a pleading, unarmed captive.

We can defeat any nation that threatens our security, but we cannot defeat a national disposition so devoid of conscience that it would allow for deliberate and brutal abuse of prisoners.

We can endure any calamity, but we cannot long endure a society that calls for tormenting the helpless in the name of security.

For the cost of that security would not be measured in freedom, nor in lives, but in the very soul of the nation – without which both life and freedom perish as well.

As both a Christian and an American, I can say that if I and those I care about are incinerated by a bomb tomorrow because I refused to rip the fingernails off of a captive enemy, then so be it. I stand ready to pay that price, in order to spend what life I have left on this earth with a clear conscience. There must be lines that we are never willing to cross, believing that our actions will be judged by history and the God who writes it.

Sometimes doing the right thing will win us success, respect, and allies. But sometimes setting those boundaries will cost us. Sometimes the night will deepen and we will wish that we could act like our enemies as they close in around our Shining City on a Hill.

It is the risk that all men take, when called upon to overcome evil with good.