Ted Cruz just launched his campaign for the 2020 presidential nomination.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice. When Cruz strode off the stage at the Republican National Convention, after delivering a speech in which he urged Americans to "vote your conscience" and didn’t mention the name of his own party’s nominee, the Trump-supporting crowd in the arena was livid. Cruz left to overwhelming chants of "Trump!" and "Endorse Trump!" His wife, Heidi, had to be escorted off the convention floor by security as Trump supporters shouted, "Goldman Sachs!" at her.
But by upsetting the Republican Party of 2016, Cruz is positioning himself to be the man who saves the party after the year is over. He’s making a bet: that Donald Trump will fail catastrophically in November and the Republican Party’s next leader will be someone who wasn’t implicated in the catastrophe. Ted Cruz wants to be that someone.
Think of it like the Cabinet secretary designated to stay in the bunker during the State of the Union address. Cruz is readying himself to emerge after the nuclear disaster of an epic defeat at the hands of Hillary Clinton, survey the wreckage, and assume command of the party to help it rebuild.
Watch: Ted Cruz gets booed and heckled
Cruz cozied up to Trump when other Republicans stayed away. Now he’s staying away as they cozy up.
What made Cruz’s convention speech so remarkable is that during the presidential primary, even as candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich made a point of denouncing Trump for his inflammatory rhetoric, Ted Cruz buddied up to Trump.
The two of them co-headlined a rally in Washington, DC, against the US-Iran nuclear deal. Cruz refused to criticize Trump’s more incendiary comments, no matter how many times he was asked. Even in December, as it began to look like a two-man race, Cruz refused to turn the cannons on Trump.
The Establishment's only hope: Trump & me in a cage match.— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) December 11, 2015
Sorry to disappoint -- @realDonaldTrump is terrific. #DealWithIt
It all fell apart, of course, as the struggle between the two for the Iowa caucuses dissolved their partnership faster than you can say "Lyin’ Ted." Trump insinuated that Cruz’s Canadian birth made him ineligible for the job Cruz has wanted his entire life, and hinted he’d go after Heidi Cruz; Cruz called Trump a pathological liar and sneered at his "New York values."
Trump won the nomination. But Cruz humiliated his victor on primetime television during his own coronation.
Don’t get it twisted, though. This wasn’t mere revenge. Ted Cruz is a more strategic politician than that. He has wanted to be president since he was a gawky debate club teenager, and his relationships are so obviously secondary to his ambition that his own colleagues hate him.
When Cruz cultivated Trump, it was because he saw something the rest of the field did not — or didn’t want to admit. He saw that Trump had his finger on the pulse of the Republican base, or at least a segment of it. And he saw that his own traditional constituency (active conservatives) saw a lot to like in Trump’s tough talk on immigration and deliberately offensive demeanor.
He saw an opportunity by embracing Trump when no one else did. Sure, his strategy — that Trump would drop out and throw his support to Cruz — turned out not to work. But that’s because Cruz misread Trump, not because he misread the voters.
Now, as the rest of the Republican Party is allying itself with the party’s nominee (with varying degrees of enthusiasm), Ted Cruz is zagging yet again.
Rick "Donald Trump’s Candidacy Is a Cancer on Conservatism" Perry not only endorsed Trump but said he’d be open to joining Trump’s ticket. Scott Walker, whose entire concession speech when he withdrew from the campaign was a plea to the party to unite behind an "alternative to the current front-runner," mustered more enthusiasm for Trump’s campaign at his RNC speech Wednesday than he ever managed to muster for his own.
Even Marco Rubio — last heard, a few days before he dropped out, making a penis joke about the size of Trump’s hands — told the RNC that "the time for fighting each other is over" in a pro-Trump speech delivered by video right before Cruz took the stage.
Why Cruz’s bet is riskier — and braver — than it might appear
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.
Conservative voters, on the other hand, have warmed up to Trump. "In the final seven races before party leaders crowned Trump the presumptive nominee," Benjy Sarlin pointed out in an article on MSNBC.com, Trump "took every county save for six, while winning almost every demographic slice of GOP voters" — including the "very conservative" voters who were Cruz’s core constituency in early primary states.
Cruz is betting that they’ll let go of Trump if he can’t win them the White House in November. It’s possible. But it’s by no means certain.
Cruz read the Republican Party right in 2015, when none of his fellow elected officials could. In 2017 — or perhaps, say, early 2020 — we’ll know if he’s done so again.