One way of describing Ted Cruz’s decision to not endorse Donald Trump is to portray him as a committed Man of Principle. The obvious problem with this, as Dara Lind observes, is that Cruz — with full knowledge of what Trump was and the threats he potentially represented — played pattycake with Trump for most of the primary campaign, at a time when many other Republican candidates were treating Trump with the contempt he merited. What Cruz’s non-endorsement actually represents is his assumptions that 1)Trump is going to get his ass kicked in November and 2)this will make him a pariah within the party like the Bush brothers:
Cruz made a bet that the GOP of 2016 would be Trump’s party; he’s now betting that the party of 2017, and beyond, will no longer be Trump’s party. He’s betting that Republicans will be as reluctant to bring up Trump after this campaign as they were to praise George W. Bush during the Obama years.
Ted Cruz is positioning himself now as a man of conscience, a man who never forgot the GOP’s conservative principles, even as the politicians around him did. He’s ready for the moment when conservative voters are ready to believe that they, too, never fell for Trump. He will wear tonight’s boos as a badge of honor, a moment that shows his principles and foresight.
This might not seem so risky: Trump is more likely to lose than not in 2016, and Cruz, by virtue of finishing the runner-up, is already the 2020 frontrunner. But it is.
Think of it this way: The people who will be most eager to move on after a Trump defeat will be the party establishment, the elites who never liked Cruz anyway. Cruz’s base of power in the GOP has always been with conservative movement figures — evangelical leaders, Tea Party activists, commentators like Erick Erickson — and with conservative voters. The first category of leaders was already loyal to Cruz and disgusted by Trump; they’ll probably follow Ted Cruz a little further to the ends of the earth after Wednesday’s show of conscience, but it’s only a matter of degrees.
To be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this per se — acting in their calculated political self-interest is what politicians, whether pursuing good or bad ends, do. And it’s far from clear that it will work. But you can also see why Cruz, and not Rubio, was the last alternative to Trump standing. I can understand what Cruz is doing. The logic of Rubio clearly endorsing Trump but trying to have it both ways by doing it on video, as if that will mean that it therefore doesn’t really count — is less clear.
Another oddity is that apparently last night unfolded exactly as Trump wanted it to. If his primary goal was the pleasure of seeing Lyin’ Ted booed off the stage, mission accomplished! If his primary goal is to become president of the United States, what he was doing is much less obvious.