With the Republican debate season entering the home stretch before voting actually begins, all eyes are on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to see how much they’ll go after each other now that they’re polling first and second. We can only hope that it’s “a lot,” because that would be fun. But while Cruz is still acting as if he and Trump are best mates, the friendship of convenience is becoming more of a one-way relationship.
Trump, speaking to Fox News Sunday the morning after a Des Moines Register poll showed him trailing Cruz by 10 points among likely Iowa caucus-goers, began lobbing some test missiles in Cruz’s direction. “When you look at the way [Cruz has] dealt with the Senate,” Trump said, “where he goes in there, like a, you know, frankly like a little bit of a maniac, you’re never going to get things done that way. You can’t walk into the Senate and scream and call people liars and not be able to cajole and get along with people.”
I agree with everything said here. And as a rule of thumb, my agreeing with something said usually means that a Republican presidential primary candidate has stepped in it.
Trump’s criticism was rational enough to earn him rebukes from one of his most reliable power centers: right-wing talk radio. “This is no different than what the Democrat Party would say,” Rush Limbaugh said on Monday in response to Trump’s comments. “I mean, this is what the Republican establishment would say, for crying out loud … for somebody running for the Republican nomination who has set himself up as anti-establishment, to join the establishment in that kind of criticism of Cruz, I don't get it.”
“So that just raised a red flag for me,” he added.
Another popular talker, Mark Levin, issued a similar warning to Trump. “I would encourage these candidates and Donald Trump to come back to us, because I’m not following him or anybody else to the left, I can tell you that right now,” he said on Monday. “Mitch McConnell is the maniac, it’s McCain who is the maniac, it’s Graham who is the maniac, it’s not Cruz. … And it’s amazing to me to have to tell Donald Trump this.”
It’s amazing. One can’t help but enjoy the shock they express upon discovering that Trump has no real beliefs and will just say whatever he wants about the whoever’s approaching him in the polls. Or maybe the talkers have known this all along but couldn’t broach it with their listeners until a figure of impregnable conservative credibility, like Cruz, became the subject of Trump’s insults.
Talkers adore Trump, or at least they pretend to, since he gets their nativist audiences all het up about the Mexicans and the Muslims and what have you. The more the relatively sane world lambasts Trump, the more common enemies Trump and the right-wing radio universe share: political correctness, the media, and the Republican establishment. When Trump called to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, the media and most prominent Republican figures pounced on him for issuing a viscerally despicable proposal. While Limbaugh said he personally has “never said anything like” a ban on Muslim immigration, he joined with Trump to laugh at the freak out. “I’ve got the Trump stack of outrage today, it’s comical,” he said. “But despite it all, they can’t take him out. They can’t stop covering him, they can’t humiliate him, they can’t embarrass him, they can’t diminish his support. They’re powerless, and this has them in a panic.” Limbaugh also backstopped Trump’s widely debunked claim that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered as the Twin Towers fell. True or not, disgusting or not (it’s not true and is disgusting), Trump had gotten all the right people riled up, and that’s good enough to earn a gold star for the day on conservative talk radio. Even when he went after Sen. John McCain’s war record, personally and nastily, he could rely on talk radio to fill his cheering section, because right-wing radio listeners don’t like McCain or the sort of people who would defend McCain.
But now that Trump is pointing out that Cruz has been a troublesome senator who’s disliked by all of his colleagues, he’s crossed a line.
We went through a situation much like this in the 2012 cycle. Newt Gingrich, despite being a consequential former speaker of the House, ran a Trumpian, bilious, bomb-throwing campaign fueled on theatrics. Though Gingrich’s policy positions were ideologically scattered, conservative talk radio ate the shtick up because he consistently assaulted the media, the culture of political correctness, and the Republican establishmentarians panicking about his rise. In late 2011, when Gingrich was leading polls by saying all sorts of nonsense and establishment Republican voices openly fretted that he might derail a Mitt Romney nomination, Limbaugh leapt to Gingrich’s defense. “It's like clockwork. It’s becoming predictable,” he began in December 2011. “No matter where you look in the Republican establishment media today, there looks to be a coordinated attack on Mr. Newt.”
But talk radio eventually turned on Newt as well after he went after another of their sacred cows.
Gingrich fell behind Romney by the time of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary and needed to make something happen heading into the South Carolina primary. So, he began assaulting Romney’s record at Bain Capital, describing the firm under Romney’s leadership as an “indefensible” “vulture capital” group that “made money while losing money for workers.”
It was easy for Limbaugh to saddle up with Gingrich when a softy “Republican establishment media” voice like George Will was going after him. But here Gingrich was attacking the one thing conservatives really liked about Romney’s record: his work as a rapacious free-market capitalist! “He sounds like Elizabeth Warren,” Limbaugh said on his show. “You could have read this in an Occupy Wall Street flyer. The left could not improve on this.”
Soon thereafter Gingrich backed off the Bain attacks and returned to a more Limbaugh-approved theatric: yelling at debate moderators. That won him South Carolina, though he eventually was buried under Romney campaign dollars.
If Trump continues hitting Cruz with these so-called “Democrat Party” attack lines, he risks losing the few powerful media voices who have been cheering on his ridiculous campaign. For a smarter way of going after the conservative senator, Trump might take notice of Cruz’s recent habit of saying one thing about immigration in public and another to his donors. There are so few exposed areas on Cruz’s conservative armor that you’d better hit them when they appear. To misfire on Cruz is to shift your shared fan base in his direction.