Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are, not surprisingly, now in a total war. One school of thought is that Cruz made a mistake in cozying up to Trump for so long now that The Donald is lambasting him in the harshest and most demagogic terms. I don’t think that’s right. Even though Cruz’s “friendship” was transparently insincere–and often cringe-inducing–it was very shrewd, and the timing of the break-up is too. It was very unlikely that the truce could last forever, and the timing of the open hostilities means that Cruz can blame Trump for firing the first shot (the Canadian stuff) and, more importantly, attack Trump from a much stronger political position.
With his surge over the last month or so, Cruz has amassed an extraordinary reserve of credibility on the right. A recent poll in Iowa had him at 91-6 favorable-unfavorable among tea partiers. If anyone has the standing to make the case against Donald Trump, it is Ted Cruz. And he won’t be making a “golly, Donald, why can’t you be nicer?” case against Trump, but a hard-hitting conservative one (and while a divided and feckless establishment, such as it is, watches from the sidelines).
If there was any tactical error here it was on the part of Donald Trump. It has been pretty clear for a long time that Cruz had great potential in Iowa, but back when Trump could have dropped a bomb on Cruz before he took off, the mogul was either taken in by Cruz’s submissiveness, or willing to play along with the terms of their faux friendship.
That is not to say that Trump can’t inflict real damage on Cruz. We saw how dangerous Trump can be in the New York values exchange in the debate. My understanding is that Cruz actually knew before the debate that Trump had used that riff previously, but for whatever reason failed to try to defuse it in his initial answer (and didn’t adequately explain that Trump himself had used the New York values phrase in a TV interview years ago).
Trump is beginning to make a case that Cruz isn’t really an outsider. The Texas senator is vulnerable here, because he indeed is not an outsider by any meaningful definition of the term (and certainly not compared to Trump, whose political experience is limited to buying off politicians). Look at Cruz’s (very impressive) CV if you have any doubt about it. Properly understood, Cruz is a conservative who is willing to go his own way and criticize his party’s own leadership. Because all good things are associated with the word “outsider” this year, Cruz has adopted the label and it has been widely accepted. Trump is about to test whether Cruz’s outsider branding can survive an excoriating critique from the biggest outsider of all.
The truly important difference between Cruz and Trump, though, is simple: one is a conservative and the other isn’t.