The editors of the Wall Street Journal believe that Senator Cruz bears a lot of responsibility for Donald Trump’s nomination. “Revolutions tend to devour their own, and so Ted Cruz finally became the main course in Indiana on Tuesday.” They criticize Cruz for his attacks on the “Republican establishment,” especially during the government shutdown of 2013, and for praising Trump in the run-up to the primaries.
Although Cruz is a friend, I side with the Journal on two points: I didn’t agree with Cruz’s strategy in 2013, and I think his praise of Trump was unjustified. But I don’t think that their larger indictment holds up.
Let’s start with the praise of Trump. If Cruz had withheld it, or criticized Trump, in November and December, how much confidence can we have that anything would have turned out differently? Other candidates attacked Trump harshly, and it did them no good and him no harm. The Journal argues, reasonably, that Cruz’s more recent criticisms would have had more force if they did not contradict his statements from a few months ago. Again, though, do we really think that this mattered enough to turn Indiana?
The shutdown, and Cruz’s general strategy, turned the most conservative Republicans toward Cruz and against Republican leaders. It did so by portraying these leaders as too prone to making deals with Democrats and too timid about fighting them. In nearly every respect Trump represents an opposing impulse. He praised and funded Democrats, he has repeatedly promised to make deals with them, and neither of these things cost him his most committed supporters. So absent has the Cruzite/tea party/anti-establishment spirit been this year that no Republican incumbent has yet lost a primary even as Trump won the nomination. And Trump generally did worse among the most conservative voters–that is, the ones whom Cruz riled up against the party leadership–than among Republican primary voters in general.
The Journal acknowledges that last point toward the end of the editorial, without noticing that it does not easily fit with the preceding excoriation of Cruz. It is quite right that Cruz was unable to move beyond the right end of the primary electorate. That fact puts Cruz in the same company as previous Republican candidates who have done well among very conservative voters. No presidential nominee since Reagan has come from anywhere to the right of the party’s center. What was different this time around was how the party’s moderate and somewhat conservative voters, and the candidates who were primarily courting those voters, acted. The most successful of these candidates was Trump, and the voters in these segments of the party who opposed him stayed divided well into the process. The explanation for this behavior on the left and in the center of the party probably doesn’t have much to do with Senator Cruz.
Quite a few Republicans, and non-Republicans, dislike both Trump and Cruz. That doesn’t mean that both are representatives of the same underlying phenomenon. And those who seek to rebuild the Republican party will probably not get very far if they continue to fight tea-party-vs.-establishment battles that have little to do with this year’s convulsions.