While Donald Trump has been busy these last few days fabricating and retweeting racist lies in the latest phase of his white nationalist campaign, his fellow competitor, Sen. Ted Cruz, has initiated a subtler but more consequential pivot: He has started disagreeing with Trump, about literally anything.
It was hard to tell for a while whether Cruz was running against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination or merely serving as the president of Trump’s fan club. As former presidential candidate Gov. Bobby Jindal put it in September, “Ted Cruz is clinging to Trump like a limpet to an oil tanker, hoping to suck up his votes when Trump eventually sinks.” Cruz shrewdly, and cynically, recognized early on that Trump had tapped into something visceral and real with a segment of Republican primary voters whose votes Cruz ultimately needs for himself.
While the media and several other Republican candidates expressed horror at Trump’s rhetoric toward undocumented immigrants over the summer, expecting his rhetoric to do him in by Labor Day, Cruz puckered up. “Quite a few members of this field have attacked Donald Trump. A lot of folks in the media have asked me ‘Ted Cruz, will you do the same?’ ” Cruz said in early August. “I have been glad to praise Donald Trump for speaking out boldly and brashly and for focusing on illegal immigration.” The two formally crystallized their relationship over a meeting, per Cruz’s request, at Trump Tower. The strategy allowed Cruz to maintain a reservoir of good will among Trump’s supporters, and it also kept Cruz out of Trump’s trigger-happy Twitter-rant crosshairs.
Cruz’s suck-up shtick couldn’t last forever. He wants to beat Trump, and that calls for an attitudinal shift at some point. But when? A major risk in the strategy of echoing Trump and then sopping up his voters when he collapses is that if Trump collapses, so will his echo. You have to push off at some point.
That point appears to be now.
While much of the right was complaining about the media’s unfair accusation that Trump was “calling” for a federal database of Muslims, Cruz found it more in his interest to run with the media narrative rather than trash it. “I’m a big fan of Donald Trump’s, but I’m not a fan of government registries for American citizens,” he said in Iowa on Friday. “The First Amendment protects religious liberty, I've spent the past several decades defending religious liberty."
Over the weekend, Cruz gave a more extensive interview to the Associated Press in which he tried to position himself, in the AP’s terms, as the “electable conservative” or the “electable outsider.” In a statement that his adversaries in either the Republican or Democratic parties will find comical, Cruz—yes, the same Cruz who was praising Trump over the summer for his courage in labeling undocumented immigrants “rapists”—argued that “Tone matters. … Are there some in the Republican Party whose rhetoric is unhelpful with regard to immigration? Yes.” When pressed about how he could possibly make this criticism in the same week that he was campaigning with his most recent high-profile endorser, Iowa Rep. Steve King, Cruz, that sly devil, said that he “cannot help the language that others use. I can only help the words that come out of my own mouth." King, not accidentally, was sitting in a separate vehicle as part of Cruz’s entourage while Cruz was giving this interview.
Why now? Well, aside from the fact that it’s nearly December and it’s time to make stuff happen, take a gander at the most recent Iowa poll from CBS News. Ben Carson, who apparently is subject to the same laws of political gravity from which Trump is exempt, has begun to fall while Trump has retaken the lead. Cruz is now in second place with a personal-best 21 percent. Cruz intends to win Iowa. And then South Carolina and the rest of the South, en route to a majority of delegates.
It could happen, and for this Cruz owes the world to Trump. When Cruz first declared his candidacy, few—including myself—gave him much of a chance because he was too far outside the mainstream. He was a factional candidate. But when Trump and Carson entered, they blew wide open the allotted space for anti-establishment, outsider candidates. This has allowed Cruz, unbelievably enough, to position himself as a compromise candidate between Trump and alleged “moderates” like Sen. Marco Rubio. He’ll pound Rubio for representing the elites on one side, while presenting himself as the more polished, credentialed figure to Trump supporters on the other.
Like every other candidate, though, Cruz’s strategy hinges on that same question everyone’s been asking for nearly six months: Will Trump collapse? If he doesn’t, then Cruz’s cynical masterpiece of a presidential campaign will end up with all the rest: in the footnotes.