If Ted Cruz has his druthers, when future generations refer to The Speech, they will be talking not about Ronald Reagan’s attempt to rescue the Goldwater campaign in 1964 but about the high-wire act that the Texas senator pulled off at the Republican National Convention this year.
Cruz may be hated by his colleagues, but he understands the theater of politics and has always been able to light up a crowd. He wasn’t trying to do that in Cleveland when he refused to endorse the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. The boos and jeers that he elicited from delegates on the convention floor by declaring the fight this year is “not for one particular candidate or campaign” and urging Americans to “vote your conscience” added drama to the occasion and gave it a sense of historical import. The historian Richard Norton Smith characterized Nelson Rockefeller’s denunciation of Goldwater at the convention in San Francisco as “one of those rare moments in history when a page is visibly being turned.” So it was when Cruz walked off the convention stage in July.
Turned to what, though?
Cruz may have suspended his presidential campaign in early May, but his electoral operation merely refocused itself on 2020. By refusing, in dramatic fashion, to endorse Trump, Cruz has positioned himself as the visionary and wise man among those of this year’s also-rans who may look to run again: With the exception of Ohio’s John Kasich, they have prostrated themselves before Trump with varying levels of enthusiasm. “The speech will stand the test of time and be seen as historically courageous while the Marco Rubios and the Scott Walkers capitulated and bowed at the foot of the emperor,” says a senior Cruz aide.
Cruz’s gamble is that four years from now, he will compare favorably with Chris Christie, who stood by as Trump heaped abuse on him (“No more Oreos!”); Marco Rubio, who mailed in a 90-second recording that immediately drew comparisons to a hostage video; Scott Walker, who offered Trump an uncomfortably tepid endorsement from the convention floor; and John Kasich, who is doing nothing to help Trump in the crucial swing state of Ohio but can rightfully be accused of helping deliver him the nomination by extending his hopeless presidential campaign. Cruz also thinks he will look good compared with some who didn’t run this year, including the hawkish Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, who half-heartedly defended Trump’s assertion that the United States might not defend its NATO allies against a Russian incursion, or Mike Pence, who decried the George W. Bush administration’s betrayal of conservative principles but now stands accused by many conservatives of sacrificing his own to join the Trump ticket.
Yet Cruz’s refusal to get behind Trump, as with everything the Texas senator does, is a case in which his stand for principle has the whiff of a hundred different tactical maneuvers intended to position him for the long term. For months before Republicans arrived in Cleveland, many labored to no avail in a last-ditch effort to wrench the nomination from Trump by freeing convention delegates to vote for a candidate of their choosing rather than the candidate to whom they were bound by their state primary or caucus. The effort failed in part because it lacked a visible leader, and Cruz was nowhere to be seen when it petered out on the convention floor. Cruz has “never been a ‘Never Trump’ guy,” says Jason Johnson, who served as chief strategist on the senator’s campaign. “He’s always said, ‘I’m watching and waiting.’ So the question is, what is he watching and waiting for? What he is watching and waiting for was outlined in that speech. We certainly know Hillary Clinton will not live up to the values he laid out. The question is, will our nominee?”
Days before the convention kicked off, Cruz ally Ken Cuccinelli pushed unsuccessfully for rules changes for the 2020 primaries, including limiting the first four nominating contests to registered Republicans by awarding bonus delegates to states that close their primaries. Cruz’s team denied having coordinated with Cuccinelli, though such a change would undoubtedly be in Cruz’s interest and Cuccinelli’s efforts were supported mostly by Cruz delegates.
Cruz’s unwillingness to bend to Trump is odd coming from a man who refused to say a bad word about him until mid January — that is, precisely when Trump began to surpass Cruz in Iowa and threaten his plan to use a victory in the caucuses to boost himself to the nomination. That’s also when Trump began attacking him on account of his Canadian birth. But Cruz made clear that his choice to delay the attack was a matter of strategy, too. “If you look at a number of the candidates that took on Donald Trump early on,” he told the Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes in March, “they ended up as roadkill.” Just a couple of weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Cruz had tweeted that Trump was “terrific.” Speaking his mind behind closed doors, Cruz had also told attendees at a private fundraiser that he was grateful for Trump’s candidacy because Trump had helped to “frame the central narrative of this primary as ‘Who will stand up to Washington?’” — something that Cruz thought would ultimately benefit him. He went on to say that voters would begin to question Trump’s judgment, at which point Trump’s campaign would inevitably implode. The strategy, Cruz explained, was to “bear hug” Trump and co-opt “the lion’s share” of his supporters when Trump faded.
The opposite happened, of course: It was Trump who benefited most from his status as a Washington outsider and from the perception that he would shatter the status quo — and who stole Cruz’s voters out from under him. But Cruz’s assumption remains that he needs Trump voters in 2020 or 2024, just as he needed Trump voters, particularly Reagan Democrats, if he was going to win in 2016. “I think that’s where this primary was decided, and at the end of the day Trump got more of those votes than I did,” Cruz said in an interview on the eve of his speech in Cleveland.
Reading between the lines of Cruz’s speech, one can see that while he rejected Trump, he also embraced a soft Trumpism. The man who came to the Senate in 2012 championing free trade came to Cleveland championing “trade policies that put the interests of American farmers and manufacturing jobs over the global interests funding the lobbyists.” Back in the Senate, Cruz’s colleagues are whispering about a “Cruz 2.0”: The senator who once routinely favored privacy over security, opposing, for example, the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of data, has shuffled to the other end of the spectrum. He recently voted in favor of a defeated amendment introduced by John McCain that would have allowed the FBI to access Internet-browsing histories without a court order. His national-security adviser, Victoria Coates, says that the senator “has always seen both sides of the issue”: “Particularly given the way the domestic threat has manifested itself over the last two years, this seemed to him to be a judicious tool for law enforcement.”
There are those in Cruz’s orbit who think Cruz has miscalculated in positioning himself so firmly against Trump. Johnson notes that Cruz said nothing negative about Trump in his speech. But if Cruz’s goal is eventually to bring Trump voters into his fold, it’s hard to see how refusing so dramatically to endorse Trump moves him any closer. Some say that Trump has outsmarted Cruz every step of the way and that allowing Cruz to be booed off the stage in Cleveland is merely the latest example. There’s evidence to support that theory: Two of the senator’s largest donors, the hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, told the New York Times that they are “profoundly disappointed” that Cruz disregarded the pledge he made during the campaign to support the Republican nominee. While Republicans focus on defeating Hillary Clinton, they said, “Senator Cruz has chosen to remain in his bunk below, a decision both regrettable and revealing.”
It is certainly revealing. In the coming years, conservatives and Republicans will decide whether they like what they’ve seen — or not.