By Sean Finn
Senator Ted Cruz recently endorsed Donald Trump for President in an about-face that has sparked a questioning of his motives by his critics and supporters alike. Few seem to accept at face-value the explanation he gave on his Facebook page, and the most common conclusion seems to be that he is defensively guarding his Senate seat which is expected to be challenged in 2018 by several formidable opponents. The next (and not mutually exclusive) conclusion is that he miscalculated in his earlier decision to withhold his support, preparing to run against Secretary Clinton in 2020 after she beat – as many expected she would – the ill prepared and ill tempered Donald Trump. I would suggest a different explanation. Ted Cruz did not miscalculate; he conditionally endorsed Donald Trump after making his true beliefs known because he is preparing to run in 2020 – but against President Trump, not President Clinton.
After publicly snubbing Trump at the Republican National Convention by refusing to endorse the Republican nominee – suggesting instead that voters should vote their conscience – Cruz surprised many in a recent Facebook post by endorsing Trump – the man he once labeled a “sociopathic liar.” Whether the initial snub was an act of principle, personal grievance or political tactic is certainly open to debate, but it certainly seemed reasonable to many observers last July that he would refuse to endorse the misogynist who attacked his wife’s appearance, suggested his father’s involvement in the assassination of President Kennedy, and is – well, to use the words of Ted Cruz – a sociopathic liar. Why, then, the delayed and lukewarm endorsement?
One possible answer is that we take Ted Cruz at his word – after “many months of careful consideration, of prayer and searching [his] own conscience,” the Senator determined that the “six key policy issues” he listed in his Facebook post demanded this endorsement. The disagreements he listed between his positions and those of Secretary Clinton are certainly consistent with his record and rhetoric on the issues he enumerated: future Supreme Court nominees, the future of Obamacare and policy solutions regarding energy, national security and internet freedom. It is a rare Republican indeed who does not share most, if not all, of those concerns regarding their future under a President Clinton. These glaring differences in policy and ideology were just as blatant in July as they are now, however, and it is difficult to make a credible claim that the character flaws that Cruz once saw as evidently disqualifying have magically transformed in the past few months. That is not to say that it is impossible that a cooler head prevailed after a few months to nurse the more personal wounds Trump inflicted upon Cruz and his family (just as we see some Bernie-or-Bust voters quietly move toward Clinton), but it seems much more likely that something changed to alter the Senator’s position. The timing of Trump’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees – notably including Cruz’s ally Senator Mike Lee – provided at least a veneer of cover for this type of change. But why would Senator Cruz trust a man he believes to be a sociopathic liar to keep a potentially difficult promise? It has also been suggested that Trump and Cruz made some less public backroom deal – perhaps nominating Cruz himself to the Supreme Court, or perhaps a prominent cabinet position – but this runs into the same issue that Cruz cannot credibly claim to believe that Trump would face down tough Senate opposition because of a promise he made to his formal rival. So, what changed?
One change pundits have noted is the tightening of the presidential race. What many analysts once predicted to be a landslide victory for Clinton has quickly become described in coin-flip language. A second thing that has changed since Cruz snubbed Trump at the convention is the decrease in support he has seen among Texan Republican voters and among prominent donors such as the Mercer Family and Peter Thiel. While the vast majority of the American electorate is focused on the 2016 presidential race, sitting senators facing reelection in 2018 are already thinking about their own electoral prospects. As Ben Domenech argues effectively in The Federalist, Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump seems to have escalated the chances of potential rivals – including former Governor Rick Perry and Rep. Michael McCaul. This theory certainly seems plausible, and to Cruz’s biggest detractors this theory is perhaps best summed up by Cruz’s infamous college roommate Craig Mazin.
I would like to propose an alternative theory – one that takes a similarly cynical assumption concerning the motives of Ted Cruz, but credits the shrewd politician with better foresight. It should not surprise Ted Cruz that the presidential race has tightened, because Trump’s primary to general strategy has in many ways mirrored Cruz’s intention. Senator Cruz was not the last man standing in the Republican Primary because he shored up the #nevertrump support as Governor Kasich tried and failed to do. Senator Cruz posed the most serious challenge to Trump’s nomination because he recognized early the dynamics of the shifting electorate – both within the Republican base and within the general electorate at large. Trusting his record to lock up support among constitutional and limited government Republicans, Cruz targeted much of the same electorate that propelled Trump to victory. Like Trump, Cruz knew that he would face opposition from the Republican Establishment and more moderate Republican voters, but he also trusted that as the general election began in earnest the looming threat of a Clinton presidency would return straying Republicans to the fold. His tactics proved less effective than Trump’s – or perhaps his polished “politician” character prevented him from effectively implementing his strategy with a politician weary electorate – but the targeted strategy itself was very similar. With this assumption in mind – that Cruz was not surprised by, but rather predicted the tightening of the presidential race – the calculation that Cruz may have made looks different.
It would have been easy for Cruz to offer Trump an unenthusiastic endorsement at the convention in the mold of Marco Rubio, or other former Trump rivals who so clearly reviled the nominee but chose to promote party unity – for its own sake or their own self-interest. When Clinton defeated Trump in a landslide victory – the thinking seemed to go – no one wanted to be blamed for sabotaging the nominee of the Party when they would eventually seek that Party’s nomination again in four years. Cruz seems to have been making a different calculus however. While Trump’s other former rivals were preparing to challenge President Clinton in 2020, Senator Cruz seems to have been preparing a primary challenge against President Trump. If this seems unlikely it is perhaps because it is so rare to see an incumbent President face a primary challenge. But once the plausibility of a Trump presidency is accepted, it is almost impossible not to imagine the man so many Republicans view as an unprepared, sociopathic egomaniac not facing a serious challenger from inside his own Party. After coming closer to anyone to stopping Trump, targeting many of Trump’s supporters, publicly snubbing the nominee who so insulted his family, Cruz will now be able to say that he still endorsed the Republican nominee for the good of the country – stopping Hillary Clinton. His endorsement, of course, came with conditions – a clear set of vital interests Cruz will assuredly hold Trump accountable for failing to adequately address. And it is almost a certainty that Trump will fail to address the issues Cruz outlined should he ever become President, because these are not issues Trump cares about and he is woefully unprepared to be president. If Trump is elected President and that day eventually comes, I expect to see Senator Cruz leading the primary charge. It is a risky strategy to be sure, and Clinton may very well quash his ambitions by winning in 2016. But Cruz’s political career has been built upon calculated risk, and should Trump ever make it to the Oval Office it is hard to point to someone better positioned to challenge the incumbent.