A group of well-armed militants, including two of Cliven Bundy’s sons, took over a federal building at an Oregon wildlife refuge late Saturday, and vowed to stay there indefinitely as an act of civil disobedience. Yesterday, given a chance to reflect on the developments, Republican presidential candidates said … very little.
To his credit, one of John Kasich’s (R) top aides turned to social media to argue, “I know a good federal compound for Bundy and his gang: a U.S. penitentiary.” The Ohio governor’s GOP rivals, however, said literally nothing.
Today, that started to change. Rand Paul, who cozied up to Bundy in the recent past, told the Washington Post, “I’m sympathetic to the idea that the large collection of federal lands ought to be turned back to the states and the people, but I think the best way to bring about change is through politics…. I don’t support any violence or suggestion of violence toward changing policy.”
Marco Rubio struck a similar note in an interview with an Iowa radio station, endorsing the idea that there’s too much federal land ownership out West, but that the militia members are going too far. “[Y]ou’ve got to follow the law,” Rubio said. “You can’t be lawless.”
But it was Ted Cruz who had the most interesting reaction of all.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz on Monday called for armed protesters who occupied a federal building in Oregon to “stand down peaceably.”“Every one of us has a constitutional right to protest, to speak our minds,” Cruz told reporters in Iowa. “But we don’t have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence against others. So it is our hope that the protesters there will stand down peaceably, that there will not be a violent confrontation.”
This one’s worth unpacking a bit.
Cruz would probably prefer we forget, but in April 2014, when the armed standoff between Bundy and federal officials first began in Nevada, the senator actually expressed sympathy for Bundy and his militant allies, and condemned President Obama for the dispute. “We should have a federal government protecting the liberty of the citizens,” Cruz said at the time, “not using the jackboot of authoritarianism to come against the citizens.”
Bundy’s racist rhetoric soon after made him politically toxic, and Cruz’s posture towards the controversial rancher turned on a dime. Today’s statement is arguably a continuation of that shift.
But also note that Cruz argued today that Americans “don’t have a constitutional right to use force and violence.” That’s a heartening sentiment, but as recently as last month, the Texas Republican said something quite different, insisting that the Second Amendment guarantees a right to bear arms, while serving as a “fundamental check on government.”
As we talked about at the time, the idea that Americans can have arsenals of deadly weapons as part of a “fundamental check on government” is predicated on a revolutionary argument – and I mean “revolutionary” in a literal sense. The assertion is that Americans may feel the need at some point to take up arms against America.
If free people, the argument goes, believe their government is acting in a tyrannical way, well-armed citizens are a “fundamental check” against those governmental excesses.
It’s an extremist argument, to be sure, but Cruz’s case is pretty similar to what we’d likely hear from the some of the militants who drove to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday and took control of its headquarters.
Cruz wants the “protesters” to stand down without a violent confrontation, and I’m glad. But I’d love to hear the senator elaborate on whether he believes the militants are, in their own way, trying to serve as a “fundamental check on government.”