Let me ramble on for a few minutes about Ted Cruz’s speech last night at the Republican National Convention.
For those coming in late, last night Ted Cruz delivered a speech — that was known in advance not to be an endorsement of Donald Trump — that was, surprisingly to pretty much everyone, an anti-Trump speech. Cruz’s speech was about conservative principles and protecting the Constitution and liberty, and at the end he pointedly said that people should “vote their conscience.” Whereupon Cruz was booed loudly by the convention, his wife was escorted away by security for her own protection, donors refused to meet with him, and some reportedly threatened physical violence against Texas’ junior senator.
There are a couple of interpretations of the speech floating around this morning. One camp says that it was a bold but risky move by Cruz, that he basically stabbed Trump like the Ides of March on live television. Another camp argues it was political suicide; like Trump or not, he is the GOP’s standard bearer for the next four months, and in attacking Trump’s candidacy as he did, in prime time at the convention, Cruz has damaged his own party’s prospects.
My interpretation spans both camps.
What we saw last night from Ted Cruz was the first speech of the 2020 presidential campaign. Seriously. Cruz is taking the bet that Trump will lose — and probably lose badly — to Hillary Clinton, so he was positioning himself both as the nominee to take on Clinton in four years but also as the savior of the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
There are two central tenets of conservative mythology.
The first is that there is a vast, silent conservative majority in the United States who doesn’t vote because no candidates speak to them.
The second is that when Republicans lose the race for the White House, it’s because they have failed to run the purest, truest, rightest, most conservative candidate. Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976 because the Republicans didn’t nominate Reagan. George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 because had shown he wasn’t a true conservative by negotiating a budget deal with the Democrats. Bob Dole lost to Clinton in 1996 because he was never a conservative (which is ironic because he was on the ticket in 1976 as Ford’s running mate because he was seen as appealing to Reagan’s conservative wing). John McCain lost to Barack Obama in 2008 because he was insufficiently conservative, and Mitt Romney lost to Obama in 2012 because he had passed a precursor to the hated Obamacare in Massachusetts.
Cruz’s message last night was crafted precisely for those two tenets of conservative mythology. Cruz was speaking to the silent conservative majority (who, I should note, almost certainly does not exist), and in talking about principles Cruz was sending a message that Trump is not the True Conservative Candidate and, as such, will lose in November.
(As a corollary to this, Clinton’s presidency will be treated as illegitimate from day one by Republicans for precisely that reason. Well, one reason among many, to be fair. Clinton won, not because she won but because the Republicans ran a candidate who couldn’t win.)
By rhetorically knifing Trump on his own stage for being insufficiently conservative, Cruz will take some lumps in the press, but to the conservatives who do exist and aren’t happy with Trump as the Republican candidate, Cruz has set himself up as the hero of the moment and the true conservative candidate for 2020. He can say, while Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, Cruz’s likely opponent in the conservative lane of the 2020 primaries, can’t, that he stood up to Trump and never wavered in his opposition. (Cotton has tepidly endorsed Trump.) He angered a lot of people, including important donors, but Cruz doesn’t care. He’s never cared what others think of him. His unwavering certainty in himself and his correctness is all that matters to Cruz.
Ted Cruz is running for president in 2020. Last night was, for all intents and purposes, his campaign kick-off.