Ted Cruz’s role was less direct than those of his rivals, but perhaps more pernicious: Cruz ran a four-year campaign for the White House that focused on delegitimizing and destroying the Republican establishment.
If the institutional Republican Party has lost credibility over the last decade, its failures–and reliance on “failure theater”–would surely deserve responsibility. Oftentimes, instead of using institutional power to obstruct Obama, they would create some setup where they could avoid stopping President Obama while making it look like they were resisting him. A great example of this is the Iran deal. The Senate essentially flipped the advice-and-consent provision of the constitution on its head, requiring that the Senate pass a resolution of disapproval, rather than affirming the deal with a two-thirds majority. Thus Republicans could bash the deal without obstructing it.
People can be fooled for a while, but not forever. Of course, Ted Cruz saw his holy mission as one that required that he unmask the venal politicians of the Republican Party, and built a Rolodex worth of enemies in his time in the Senate. He ran a pointless suicide charge against the Affordable Care Act in 2013 and condemned Republicans who sat out. He called Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor and railed against McConnell on debt ceiling machinations. Through it all, Cruz became one of the most popular politicians on the Right: Cruz was calling out the hypocrisy and the lies where he saw them, and he alone was fighting the good fight. Ironically, while criticizing failure theater implicitly, Cruz was offering a different kind of politically motivated play: what we might call “combat theater.” Cruz’s fights led nowhere and bred a sort of political nihilism on the Right: Cruz is a man of principle. If only Cruz had more Republican allies then we’d win again.
Thus, with the help of talk radio, the institutional GOP was utterly delegitimized among rank-and-file Republican primary voters. This is clearest in polling numbers; the GOP favorability rating among Republicans declined from a high of 89 percent in 2012 to 68 percent in April 2016, according to Pew.
Cruz, in other words, was the miner and sapper of the bulwark of a stable political party: he attacked public support for what we could call the GOP being a “measured nuisance” to Obama’s political agenda, instead demanding utter purity. This was in spite of the fact that under the much-maligned Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, Republicans essentially won the spending wars with the White House, as detailed by writer Matthias Shapiro.
Cruz’s mining and sapping resulted in him being widely loathed, but an arbiter of true conservatism, a man that talk radio and the “entertainment establishment” could rely on.
So, when Trump emerged on the Right as a genuine presidential candidate, bolstered by affect and ressentiment, Cruz had an opportunity: he could have denounced Trump for his conservative heresies on Rush Limbaugh’s show, or Sean Hannity’s show, and hoped to bring talk radio along. Instead, what did Cruz do? He went on FOX News and offered effusive praise for Trump, noting, “When it comes to Donald Trump, I like Donald Trump. I think he’s terrific. I think he’s brash. I think he speaks the truth.”
Rick Perry delivered an important anti-Trump speech in July, calling Trump a “sower of discord” (harking back to the Book of Proverbs, in what may well have been a coded message to Evangelicals), “toxic,” and a “carnival barker.” Did Cruz back up Perry to bring the radio establishment on board to an ecumenical anti-Trump message? Nope. Crickets. Perry was out on a limb on his own.
Republican strategist and consistent Trump antagonist Rick Wilson nailed this dynamic back in January:
In August of last year, I described Cruz’s behavior toward Trump as “feeding the alligator in hopes that it eats him last.” As painful as it is for his fans to admit it, there’s only one person to blame for the situation in which Cruz now finds himself and that’s Ted Cruz. For six months now, Cruz has played the role of eager understudy and Trump lickspittle, praising nearly everything that spews from Trump’s mouth. Not only did Cruz set a land-speed record racing off to Trump Tower to pay obeisance to The Donald early in the process, he has taken almost every opportunity to lavish praise on even Trump’s most ridiculous and politically deadly policies. He has embraced and amplified messages that are poisonous among women, Hispanics, and even limited-government conservatives. Cruz has occasionally stepped back from the brink, but always while shoveling on fulsome praise for the notorious game-show host and con artist leading the Republican field.
Cruz continued to draft off of Trump for months, hoping that Trump would fade or drop out and that he could pick up Trump’s supporters. Indeed, as late as December, Cruz was mocking those who wished he would take on Trump. Certainly, Cruz’s interlocutors didn’t necessarily have Cruz’s best interests in mind, but again, we’re talking about opportunities and contingency. Cruz could have decided that Trump was dangerous to the long-term conservative project, to the fight against abortion, to the fight for markets and against cronyism. Instead, he offered perhaps his most famous tweet:
The Establishment's only hope: Trump & me in a cage match.
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) December 11, 2015
Ted Cruz is not an idiot; he must have known what Donald Trump was all along. He sort of gave up the ghost in the final days of his campaign, calling Trump a “pathological liar,” an “utterly amoral” man, and a “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.” Of course, he had to preface it with his Kinsley gaffe, opening by saying, “I’m going to do something I haven’t done for the entire campaign. I’m going to tell you what I really think of Donald Trump.” If he’d done so sooner, he might have made a difference.
Image by Gage Skidmore