It's easy to forget now, but Ted Cruz was supposed to be the Donald Trump of this election.
The Republican establishment's loathing of Ted Cruz was the worst-kept secret in Washington. They thought him ideologically extreme, personally obnoxious, and strategically reckless. They blamed him for the 2013 government shutdown, worried over his hard-line position on immigration, and complained about his unerring instinct for getting his name in the news.
It was Cruz, they figured, who would be the unelectable candidate, capturing conservative hearts by telling them exactly what they wanted to hear — and whom the Republican Party would ultimately have to figure out a way to stop in order to have a chance in hell of winning the general election.
But then Donald Trump came along. And only Ted Cruz seems to have the slightest idea of how to beat him.
Ted Cruz is the only Republican candidate who's figured out how to handle Donald Trump
Cruz never panicked over Trump. He never lashed out at him or insulted his supporters. Instead, he tried to kill Trump with kindness, while positioning himself somewhere between the Donald and the GOP establishment, in a bid to be the candidate angry conservatives turned to when it was time to get serious. (Cruz admitted as much in private audio leaked to the New York Times. Speaking about Trump and Carson, he said, "My approach, much to the frustration of the media, has been to bear hug both of them, and smother them with love. ... I believe gravity will bring both of those campaigns down and I believe the lion's share of their supporters will come to us.")
The strategy is working (and enraging Trump). Jeb Bush has nearly vanished from the race, and Marco Rubio's rise in the polls has been, at best, modest. But last week, three polls showed Cruz leading in Iowa — and the GOP is finally seeing proof that an elected Republican might win this primary. It's just not the elected Republican they hoped it would be.
Ted Cruz's first- and second-choice numbers in Iowa combine for 51 percent in DMR poll pic.twitter.com/B6pyTh5HkZ— Shane Goldmacher (@ShaneGoldmacher) December 13, 2015
In Cruzland, the fact that a candidate like Cruz is the party's best — and maybe only — bet has long seemed obvious. "The establishment has made him out to be crazy or a bomb thrower when it simply has not been true," says Chip Roy, who was Cruz's chief of staff from 2012 to 2014 and is now an assistant attorney general in Texas.
Cruz's team argues that they've been working for years to get the Republican establishment to address the frustrations that are now powering Trump's rise. The strategic decisions that so enraged Senate Republicans — like shutting down the government in a last-ditch effort to derail Obamacare — were an effort to make good on the promises Republicans repeatedly made to their voters. It's those broken promises, Cruz's team thinks, that have led to the widespread conservative mistrust of the Republican Party — and to the serious consideration conservative voters are giving to outsider candidates like Trump and Carson.
In this view, the GOP establishment's loathing of Cruz has been largely a case of shooting the messenger. But Republicans are soon going to realize that their real choice isn't between Bushism and Cruzism, but between Cruzism and Trumpism.
Are Cruz's supporters right? It's too early to say, but in Washington you can feel the establishment warming to Cruz — and it's largely because of the comparison with Trump.
Why the Republican establishment is rethinking its hatred of Ted Cruz
As ideologically extreme as Cruz is, he's at least philosophically recognizable to Republicans — unlike Trump, he's never backed a massive wealth tax or a single-payer health care system, and his policies are crafted by staffers who are known within the conservative movement.
As Matt Yglesias writes, Cruz "doesn't really disagree with the rest of the party about major policy questions. He likes tax cuts, and so do they. He wants to repeal Obamacare. He wants to curb environmental regulations. He wants to make abortion illegal. And unlike Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, he agrees with most congressional Republicans about immigration."
Or, to put it another way, if President Ted Cruz needs to pick a Supreme Court justice, he'll rely on the same advisers, and pick the same kind of person, as Marco Rubio. If President Donald Trump needs to pick a Supreme Court justice, no one knows whom he'll talk to or what kind of person he'll choose.
Cruz's Senate colleagues might find him obnoxious and tough to work with, but he comports himself publicly with professionalism — he doesn't sit around tweeting and retweeting random insults of other candidates, and his warnings that they were misjudging the anger of the Republican base increasingly seem prescient.
But perhaps most importantly, Republicans increasingly have reason to wonder if they misjudged Cruz's strategic acumen. He's been the only candidate who understood how to manage Trump's rise, he's built a campaign operation that's widely acknowledged as among the strongest in the field, he's raised tremendous amounts of money, he's been relentlessly disciplined with his message, and he's organized a genuinely impressive coalition of supporters.
"His campaign is uniting the Counter Establishment," wrote David Brooks (who is, to be sure, no Cruz fan).
Ted Cruz will never be the GOP establishment's first choice, but if it comes down to Trump and Cruz — or even anything close to that — he's also not going to be the candidate they mobilize to destroy. Trump has made clear that Ted Cruz is far from the worst possible outcome for the Republican Party.
What's more, Trump has made voting for Cruz seem perfectly reasonable. An Iowa Trump supporter who's a bit nervous about Trump can caucus for Cruz and feel like she made a responsible, even conciliatory, choice.
"With voters, Trump has absolutely mainstreamed Cruz," says Michael Needham, CEO of the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America. "Has anybody moved the Overton window more?"
Which isn't to say that the establishment's initial read on Cruz was wrong. In particular, I agree with Yglesias, who argues that Cruz may well be less electable than Trump — his economic policies are much more extreme and unpopular. With Trump, there's at least the Hail Mary chance that hordes of downscale white voters have been waiting for a candidate who combines economic populism with ethnic nationalism, social conservatism, and garish celebrity.
But if Cruz loses, he'll lose as a conservative Republican, and he'll do so in a way the Republican establishment will know what to do with. And if he wins, he'll win as a conservative Republican, and the Republican establishment will at least know whom in his White House to call. Maybe that's good enough.