Going into Wednesday night, Ted Cruz intentionally left people wondering what the meaning and the subtext of his prime-time Republican National Convention speech would be: Would he endorse Trump? Come close to endorsing Trump? Or would he largely ignore Trump and talk about ideas he wants to see vindicated eventually in our politics?
In the end he did not endorse Trump, nor did he come particularly close. He did talk about some ideas (abstractions, mostly, but ideas nonetheless) that defined conservatism in the pre-Trump era. But none of these was his main objective.
Trump-skeptical Republicans have been despondent about the state of their party and their prospects for victory in 2016 for months now. It was no secret as the party convened in Cleveland that ambitious GOP up-and-comers would use the convention as a platform to increase their own profiles ahead of 2020, while also hedging their bets and endorsing Trump, in case he somehow wins in November.
Cruz was up to something different altogether. Like the other ambitious speakers, Cruz is still eyeing the presidency. Unlike any other speaker, though, Cruz enjoys the tacit support of a huge minority of assembled delegates. Many of them are Cruz people at bottom, and regret that Cruz isn’t the GOP nominee today. And so rather than hedge like others did, Cruz made a career-defining bet, not just that Trump will lose, but that Trump will lose badly.
In a way, Cruz seemed determined to use his moment in the spotlight to maximize the size of Trump’s defeat. If it pays off, Cruz will cement his status as the one Republican 2016 candidate who practices politics with an eye toward the horizon, and the Republican in politics most willing to elevate personal ambition above party interest–a useful if not heroic trait at a time when Republican interests and Trump’s are converging. He will spend the ensuing years as the presumptive frontrunner in the 2020 primary. But it will only work if Democrats humiliate Trump this fall.
Rather than placate Trump’s supporters, Cruz played both ends against the middle. If the purpose of the convention is to foster party unity, Cruz’s aim was to sow division. He picked a fight with Trump’s supporters, knowing it would pit many of his own people in the room against them. Cruz told the crowd, and millions watching at home, not to vote for Trump, but to “vote your conscience.” When Trump supporters in the crowd started booing, he goaded them further, “I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation.” The New York delegation is of course filled with members of Trump’s family. Cruz may as well have told Trump’s children to shut their mouths and show him some respect. (After Cruz left the stage, the next prime-time speaker, Newt Gingrich, strained to paper things over by pretending Cruz hadn’t just badly undermined Trump. He understood the damage done.)
Cruz also spoke in surprisingly tolerant (for him) terms about minority groups he has demagogued in the past. “Gay or straight, the Bill of Rights protects the rights of all of us,” he said. “Freedom means religious freedom, whether you are Christian or Jew, Muslim or atheist.”
Not in a million Republican primaries would Cruz have reached out to gays and lesbians and Muslims and atheists from such a lofty stage. But as a future presidential candidate, he might! And as Trump has proudly pandered to bigots to build his coalition, Cruz must have known that standing up for the rights of these disfavored minorities would provoke the crowd further.
Intuitively speaking, picking a fight with a plurality of the Republican electorate doesn’t make much sense. It’s why people like Marco Rubio, who is famous for engaging in the most expedient form of politics, held their noses and spoke positively on Trump’s behalf: If Trump wins, their place in the party is secure. If he loses, they haven’t alienated the base.
But that thinking only works if Trump loses narrowly, and his faction is still incumbent, still ascendant, still the party’s future; that is, if Republicans don’t collapse into recriminations, and tell themselves their failure was some kind of fluke. But what if they respond to defeat by descending into disarray, hungry for a new direction—perhaps a direction where they don’t strategically foment anti-gay, anti-Muslim animus? 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 Rubio and Paul Ryan and every other potential post-Trump savior who submitted to Trump this week.
I’m not sure the forces of Trumpism can be so easily sidelined, and I’m not sure I can imagine holier-than-thou Ted Cruz leading the party in a more moderate direction, toward broader appeal. But he did something crucial Wednesday night at the Quicken Loans Arena, something nobody else in Republican politics could survive. He told 20 million voters, disproportionately Republican, they don’t need to vote for Trump if they don’t want to; he stabbed Donald Trump in the front. And in the final analysis, he probably made the safe bet, too.