Over at the New Republic, Brian Beutler has called Ted Cruz’s move Wednesday night to refuse to endorse Donald Trump “brilliant.”
According to Beutler, “Cruz’s bet is that the party will process a third straight presidential election defeat, and possibly a landslide, as a repudiation of Trumpism. Amid the rubble, Cruz will emerge as the leader of chaste conservatives who didn’t abase themselves by acquiescing to Trump. He will have an immediate leg up on Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan and every other potential post-Trump savior who submitted to Trump this week.”
This is a smart theory and, considering that Brian is one of the best political analysts writing today, I’m generally loath to disagree with him. But I do. Cruz’s move appears tactically smart, but I actually think it hurts his chances of winning the Republican nomination in 2020. The great irony is that Cruz’s mistake is that he is thinking and acting like a member of the Republican establishment.
If Trump loses in November, many Republicans will seek to turn their back on Trumpism by picking a leader who isn’t stained by support for him. But the question is: which Republicans? Sure members of the GOP establishment will feel that way as will the anti-Trump wing of the party.
But what about Trump’s supporters — the people who attended his rallies, bought “Make America Great Again” hats, and voted for him in primaries and caucuses? They will be looking for a new leader and will be far more inclined to give the edge to someone who remained loyal to Trump.
Based on my own experience attending Trump rallies and speaking with his supporters, there is already intense antipathy toward Cruz among rank-and-file Republicans. It’s not just that he is an unctuous, unlikable figure. Many of Trump’s backers see him as someone who actively tried to stand in the way of Trump’s coronation as nominee this past spring. Trump supporters I spoke with tended to view individuals like Rubio and Jeb Bush as more pitiful than malevolent. The opposite is true of Cruz. The distaste for him is intense and personal. One delegate at the convention called him a “snake.”
It is certainly true that Chris Christie, Ryan, Mike Pence, and Rubio have debased themselves by signing on to the campaign of a man utterly unqualified to be president. But within the fever swamps of the Republican Party they have established their political viability for 2020 by maintaining a connection to Trump and his voters. Christie gets a lot of criticism for being a toady to Trump, but it might pay off well for him in four years.
Cruz will head into 2020 already despised by the party establishment and now he can add to that being despised by a large segment of the party. And that wing of the party will want nothing more than to stop him from getting the Republican nomination.
Moreover, if Trump loses, does anyone expect the candidate or his supporters to be magnanimous in defeat? More likely they will be looking for someone to blame — the media, “crooked Hillary,” and almost certainly Cruz, for being a disloyal figure at the RNC this week.
The bet Cruz is making is that Republicans will come to their senses in 2020, turn their back on Trumpism, and move in a more moderate and tolerant direction. I am skeptical this will actually happen, but even if it does, Cruz’s actions this week make it that much more likely that GOP rank-and-file voters will look to someone else within the party for president – someone who endorsed Donald Trump in 2016.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.