Eighteen months ago, Sanders was “Bernie Who?” to anyone outside northern New England. But through unbridled passion and sheer force of repetition, and in a Brooklyn accent that launched a thousand impersonations, this rumpled character from a tiny state shattered the apparent consensus that had emerged among Americans over what national politicians were allowed to discuss.
Some of his pet issues, like breaking up banks and switching to single-payer health care, were considered policy third rails until Sanders rode them to wins in an astonishing 23 primaries and caucuses. Others, like free college tuition, were barely blips on the ideas radar before he pushed them into the conversation. On a number of issues—notably, trade and the $15 hourly minimum wage—Sanders got his primary rival, Hillary Clinton, to move left and, in the case of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to reverse her position entirely. Not to mention that Sanders, a longtime independent who officially became a Democrat only when he declared his candidacy, persuaded the party to adopt many of his ideas in its official platform. In a race in which one leading candidate blurted out policies seemingly on the fly, and the other clearly assembled them by committee, Sanders’ unapologetic and relentless clarity about principles—whether you found those principles thrilling or totally absurd—reminded America that you could build a following around actual ideas, shouted clearly, over and over.
Ted Cruz, too, built his following around ideas delivered over and over: a crisp and carefully honed set of Tea Party principles that left him the No. 2 vote-getter in the GOP primary after Donald Trump blew all the more ideologically compromising figures off the landscape. For conservative Republicans who fretted at Trump’s wobbliness on abortion, health care and gun control, the Texas senator was the unwavering antidote, denouncing Trump with the same intransigence he had applied to his own party’s leaders during the 2013 government shutdown. (No surprise, then, that elders like toppled Speaker John Boehner preferred even Trump to Cruz, whom he memorably dubbed “Lucifer in the flesh” during the primaries.) Cruz may have lost, but he used his final turn in the spotlight at the GOP convention to make a lengthy and vehement argument that principles should still matter in his party, before pointedly declining to endorse the candidate in front of him and encouraging the crowd to “vote your conscience.” Cruz’s historically bold move might have been public political suicide—or the savviest long-game move of the summer. Either way, it left Cruz standing dramatically alone as the standard-bearer for the ideas wing of movement conservatism after November.
And that is why we begin this list with a most unlikely pairing of ideological opposites. Trump might have won his party’s nomination, and we have no doubt that 2016 will long be known as the year of the hectoring uncle with oddly sculpted hair. But if you’re looking for this crazy campaign season’s most striking examples of how actual ideas can move the political realm, it’s Sanders and Cruz—the hoarse independent senator from Vermont and the smooth-talking Tea Party debater from Texas—who most powerfully used the platform of a presidential race to remind America of why ideas matter in politics. It was their ideas that drove their movements. And though the movements didn’t land them on the ticket this fall, they’ll be echoing through American politics, next year and beyond.
Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz U.S. Senators, Vermont and Texas
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