In early May, as the Republican primary campaign wheezed toward the finish line, Ted Cruz was presented with a difficult decision. On one hand, the Republican Party “establishment” had become increasingly resigned to Donald Trump as the inevitable Republican nominee. Trump swept the northeastern primaries in late April and seemed poised to deal Cruz a devastating blow in Indiana. Regardless of the intricacies of the delegate math, the party appeared wholly uninterested in wresting the nomination away from the overwhelming popular vote and delegate leader at a messy and unpredictable contested convention in Cleveland. Elite Republican opinion increasingly coalesced around the notion that Trump might be electoral poison and an erratic conservative at best, but further dividing the party in a futile attempt to reclaim what had already been lost would forever alienate a generation of Republican voters.
On the other hand, Trump was calling Cruz’s father a treasonous murderer. Actually, it was more than that: over the course of two increasingly nasty months, Trump suggested that Cruz was an inveterate liar and a serial adulterer, that his wife was ugly, and that his father had conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK. Cruz is known as a uniquely craven pol with a singular hunger for the presidency even in a world full of such types—the senate. So the choice must have been rather difficult for him: capitulate to a bully spreading some of the most mendacious and vicious personal attacks in the history of presidential politics, or risk leading an unwinnable war against the very party he hoped to lead, if not now than in four years.
Certainly, though, when a sneering boor like Trump links your own dad to the Kennedy assassination, personal pride should win out. And so it was that on the day of Trump’s Oswald innuendo on Fox & Friends, Cruz unleashed a torrent of vitriol in a brutal Trump takedown:
This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth…Donald Trump is a serial philanderer and he boasts about it,” Cruz said. “This is not a secret; he is proud of being a serial philanderer…Describes his battles with venereal diseases as his own personal Vietnam…If anyone has seen the movie ‘Back to the Future II’, the screenwriter says that he based the character Biff Tannen on Donald Trump, the caricature of a braggadocious, arrogant buffoon…We are looking, potentially, at the Biff Tannen presidency.
Cruz’s words were a ruthless attack one year in the making. After a year of appeasement, the gloves had finally come off. And with words so cutting, even Cruz seemingly could not walk back that assault. Marco Rubio might be able to take back his biting Trump critiques in the same manner he reversed his immigration policy and his decision not to run for reelection to the Senate. But a deeply religious man like Cruz taking back comments like these to a man like Trump? Surely not.
A day later, Indiana weighed in and Cruz bowed out. Clearly, Cruz felt that the slim chance he had of taking the nomination away from Trump at a bitterly divided convention was outweighed by the potential harm to his political future of staying in. He did not, however, reverse his Trump condemnation or offer him his endorsement. It appeared that whatever Cruz’s ambitions, 2016’s conclusion was not going to be part of his political calculus.
Two months later, though, and Trump has continued to demonstrate his total lack of fitness for the presidency and shake the GOP to its very core. The last month has seen Trump attack a federal judge for being Mexican, raise practically no money for his campaign, engage in a total shakeup of his campaign team, tweet an anti-Semitic message, and praise Saddam Hussein. One can only imagine what Cruz and his former campaign manager Jeff Roe are thinking as Trump both hurtles toward the convention unopposed and yet shows no signs of minimizing his outrageous behavior.
No matter. It’s too late now to make a last ditch charge at the presidency. The scattershot movements for convention chaos desperately seeking publicity these last few weeks have no chance of success. For Cruz, the question now is what the best course is for making another run in 2020. Cruz recently announced plans to run for reelection to the senate in 2018, which, it’s been widely reported, is a prelude to another attempt at the presidency two years after that.
Which brings us to the present when last week it was reported that Trump and Cruz held a brief meeting on the Hill. At that meeting, Trump offered, and Cruz accepted, a speaking slot at the convention in Cleveland. Apparently, such an offer was not contingent on an endorsement, and as of this moment Cruz has yet to endorse Trump. So the question remains, what should Cruz do to best preserve his political future? Stand as the principled conservative stoically refraining from following his party after an infamous impostor? Or acquiesce to his party’s voters and endorse the man who called his father a presidential assassin?
Ordinarily, capitulating to the forces that so callously insulted your very personal and family character would appear unbecoming to ordinary voters. Plus, Cruz’s substantive critiques of Trump were so deep that a flip-flop of support—even if cast as simply a rejection of Hillary Clinton—would be seen as gutless and political. Of course, there are also the linguistic gymnastics he would have to undertake to endorse a “pathological liar” and a “serial philanderer” to consider. But as has been extensively (perhaps excessively!) documented here over the last half year, the incentives of modern Republican politicians have become deeply perverse. Strategic decisions that would benefit their party, their policy goals, and sometimes even their general election prospects, are repeatedly subordinated to preventing a revolt from the right.
Faced with a dilemma similar to Cruz’s, John McCain chose to tepidly endorse Trump at the expense of his personal dignity and a greater erosion of his general election support among Latinos and moderates. McCain himself has admitted that solidifying the base in his primary campaign and making sure that all of his hard-right, anti-immigrant base pulls his lever drove his decision to back Trump, even as the New Yorker’s position atop the ticket imperils his chances in November: “If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket,” McCain told a group of donors in May, “here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life.”
McCain’s forays into presidential politics, however, are behind him. He can plausibly hope to grind out a win in a red state where his brand is still quite strong. Cruz, on the other hand, will be seeking to win a national primary by convincing Republican voters that he is the best person to lift the party from the ashes of 2016. It’s not clear that aligning himself in even the most minimal way with the Trump campaign will benefit that aim. Jim Newell of Slate argues that Rubio and Cruz are in the same boat, that “the safe answer” for those two to the Trump dilemma “is to pathetically muddy the waters so as to be able to give whichever answer is popular when the next campaign rolls around.” That reasonable sounding strategy, however, overlooks the likelihood that rank and file Republicans aren’t going to look at Trump in the same light three years from now as they do today.
In all likelihood, Trump will lose, and will lose quite badly. Not only that, but he is likely to lose in such a way that will tear Republican families apart. Trump’s opponent is reviled among Republicans, and so any action tending to increase the odds of Hillary Clinton becoming president will outrage many Republicans. At the same time, though, Trump himself is the object of scorn and despair among many, especially younger, conservatives. Trump has shown disdain for countless traditional Republican priorities—from social conservatism to free trade to an active American role abroad. And of course, his campaign threatens to be on the wrong side of history. It’s one thing to be a racist demagogue who’s winning primaries. It’s quite another to be the ideological heir to George Wallace and the electoral heir to George McGovern.
Thus, it’s not so much support for Trump himself that will be a litmus test for the 2020 primaries, but rather support for the concerns and attitudes Trump harnessed. Cruz understands this better than anyone: he tried a milder form the Trump playbook at the start of this campaign, running on a hardline immigration platform and indicating solidarity with cultural conservatives through evangelical faith and machine-gun bacon. Cruz has never been a “party guy” and should only feel constrained by what will impress or repulse core Republican activists, interest groups, media, and base voters. Devotion to the guns, religion, and anti-political correctness cultural conservativism is a critical commitment. Blind support for the GOP nominee isn’t.
At the same time, taking a proud stand as a Never Trump leader would be a mistake as well. There is absolutely no need for Cruz to make fervent Trump opposition the main element of his political biography. If there’s one thing the many Trump apologists—from Rubio to McCain to Paul Ryan to Mitch McConnell—have right, it’s that taking a leading role in a movement whose inevitable consequence is electing Hillary Clinton is a guaranteed killer in a future Republican primary. Sitting completely on the sidelines may be just as dangerous as hopping happily aboard Trump’s campaign.
All of which is why Cruz’s move last week to speak at the GOP convention could be a political masterstroke if he plays his hand correctly. If Cruz was able to convince Trump to let him speak without offering him a full-throated endorsement, then a politically advantageous scenario is in play. Cruz can use a high-profile speaking slot to cement his place as an indispensable party actor. His presence at the convention and his inevitable attacks on Clinton’s record and competence should be enough to intimate support for Trump without actually saying the words of endorsement. Then, he can use his convention speech to do two things that won’t alienate Trump allies, while setting Cruz up well for a second presidential run. First, he can offer a broad, flowery, fervent defense of conservative principles. It’s the kind of speech unlikely to be made this time around, with so many mainstream Republicans refusing to speak or staying home. It’s also the kind of address that in this unique political climate is likely to ingratiate himself with right-wing activists and Republican elites alike, with both groups upset over Trump’s heresies. Second, Cruz can lay out a methodical, forceful case against Hillary Clinton. If he delivers his lines well, this is exactly the kind of rhetoric that will leave all factions pleased.
Both elements of such a speech could be fantastic launching points for another run at the presidency. The former could be Cruz’s version of the rousing conservative siren call Ronald Reagan delivered at the 1976 convention after his primary loss to Gerald Ford. And three years from now, a brutal takedown of Clinton’s policies and character will hold up very well when the then-approaching contest will likely be her reelection effort. If politically facile enough to engineer it, this middle path may lead Cruz to a strong position the next time around—secure with the Republican base but mostly clear of the stains of Trump’s sins.