Oh, Ted Cruz. Never change.
The Texas Senator stole the scene last night at the RNC convention by refusing to endorse Donald Trump in his speech. If there was any doubt why, he followed it up this morning by saying he wouldn’t be a “servile puppy dog” by endorsing a man who personally attacked his wife and father.
The focus today is what it means for conservative voters in 2016 and Cruz’s almost-certain run in the Republican primary again in 2020. But Cruz achieved much more than positioning himself as the true conservative who wouldn’t follow Trump into terrible defeat. He also set up the early contrast between himself and Hillary Clinton, all while possibly neutralizing a few negatives for himself.
Consider what the aftermath of 2016 could look like: Trump continues to self-destruct and takes the entire Republican Party down with him, leading to a massive soul-searching within the party. Democrats will spend the next four years tying every Republican they can to Trump, including whoever Republicans put up for 2020.
It might work, it might not. But if Democrats are successful in making the Republican Party pay for Trump for years and years, Cruz offers them a chance to make a clean break from the Trump label. A Cruz nominee in 2020 would be the fastest way to silence Democratic attacks over the ghost of Trump. If Scott Walker or Marco Rubio or Mike Pence are the nominee, Clinton’s re-election could become about Trump all over again.
Cruz could also spin this clearly self-serving act into a brave action that demonstrates his personal credibility. One of Cruz’s biggest weaknesses is that he’s seen as a calculating politician. And many Republicans may not forget or forgive his speech last night for years. But to swing voters and Republicans who were disgusted by Trump, he could be seen as the only Republican with the foresight and guts to do the unthinkable and reject the party’s nominee.
Who’s really the self-serving politicians in this? Chris Christie who begged to be a part of Trump’s orbit? Scott Walker who endorsed Trump on stage despite his misgivings? These were all politicians doing exactly what is always done – fall in line behind the nominee, no matter who it is. Kind of sounds like the politics-as-usual that’s crippled the country.
And Cruz could use that to contrast himself with President Clinton. She modified her stances during and after the primary to appeal to Bernie Sanders’ more progressive base. Certainly she’ll have to make more compromises and may backtrack on a few promises once she’s in the White House. Cruz could make the case that he’s so principled in what he believes in he was willing to get booed off the stage at the Republican convention. You may not agree with what he stands for, but he does stand for something.
2020 is also likely to be another base election. Despite the cheers in the convention hall, Trump simply doesn’t have the excitement of many of the core constituencies of the GOP, evangelicals chief among them. Cruz may turn off some Trump backers and Republican loyalists from his theatrics last night, but the hardest-working activists could be motivated by finally having a real, strident conservative at the top of the ticket.
Of course, all of this is predicated on many things: that Trump will implode this year, that Democrats will successfully tie Republicans to him for years after, and that Cruz’s endorsement refusal doesn’t turn out to be too-cute-by-half. Republicans might actually stay furious at him for years, seeing his rejection of the nominee as damaging to all down-ballot conservatives, despite his plea for turnout.
But if 2016 showed anything, it showed that boldness pays off (at least on the Republican side). Many praised Pence’s serious speech last night, but did he come off as that much different than all the Republicans who played it safe this year, only to go down to defeat to Trump? And can another generic Republican fare any better against Democrats’ electoral college vote advantage? 18 Republicans ran in 2016 – even more could run in 2020. Cruz’s boldness will stand out in both a crowded primary field and in a potential one-on-one matchup with Clinton.
by Pat Rynard