The most interesting subplot of the 2016 Republican presidential primary’s Summer Of Trump is the enduring détente between the billionaire frontrunner and mid-single-digit lurker Ted Cruz. While Donald Trump has been enthusiastically attacking other candidates in the GOP field, he and Cruz have been getting downright chummy. When Trump was under fire for calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” in his announcement speech, Cruz pointedly refused to criticize Trump and instead praised him for focusing the country’s attention on undocumented immigration. Last month, Cruz called up Trump to ask for a private meeting and he happily accepted, explaining that he respected Cruz for his willingness to say nice things about Donald Trump. Given that these two are ostensibly competing for the same job, they’re spending an inordinate amount of time building each other up.
The latest bit of Trump-Cruz synergy was announced just yesterday when Cruz’s campaign announced that he and Trump would be appearing together at a rally in Washington, DC to “stop” the Iran deal.
Obviously, this is all theater. The rally will have zero bearing on the fate of the Iran deal, though it will provide Cruz with some media exposure, especially now that Trump is on the guest list. One thing that’s definitely worth noting, however, is that the event is being sponsored by the Center for Security Policy, a disreputable “think tank” operated by birther nutjob and Islamophobic conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney. If you’ve ever stumbled across reports that one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides is a secret agent for the Muslim Brotherhood, then you’ve sampled some of the Center for Security Policy’s fine work.
Anyway, the reason behind Cruz’s overtures to Trump has long been glaringly obvious: he’s looking ahead to the collapse of Trump’s candidacy and wants to be in a position to scoop up Trump’s supporters. It’s a nakedly political calculation, and Cruz’s team isn’t particularly shy about saying as much. National Journal’s Tim Alberta talked to Cruz and his advisers and they laid out the strategy for him:
The Cruz camp is confident that Trump's candidacy will have a natural arc, that eventually political gravity will pull his numbers down, and that when it happens, Cruz will be ideally positioned to absorb his current supporters. In the meantime, Trump will sustain plenty of attacks from other opponents. And as an added bonus for Cruz's hands-off approach, Trump is doing his dirty work. The real-estate mogul has been especially harsh lately on Scott Walker, long considered by Cruz's camp to be their most direct competition in Iowa because of his appeal to both evangelicals and tea-partiers.
Cruz will pal around with Trump and promote the issues on which they largely agree (immigration, Iran) and studiously ignore the issues on which they differ (taxes, healthcare) right up to the moment that Trump’s campaign starts dying, then he’ll wait patiently like a buzzard to strip the flesh from its carcass. It’s a smart play for Cruz – he and Trump inhabit the same “populist,” anti-establishment space, so Trump supporters would probably find Cruz to be a palatable Plan B. And if he maintains his current level of support and absorbs just some of the Trump coalition, Cruz will be lifted into the top tier of candidates.
Of course, if you’re at all familiar with Cruz and his peculiar approach to politics, this alliance of convenience comes off as grossly hypocritical and precisely the sort of politically motivated posturing that Cruz so often rails against. Ted Cruz does not tolerate compromise – he campaigned for the Senate on the explicit promise that he would never, ever compromise because “what Washington needs is more common sense and more principle.” On the stump, Cruz declares that America is in desperate need of a “consistent conservative” and not a “campaign conservative.” By making common cause with Trump, he’s helping to promote precisely the sort of “campaign conservative” he rails against. Cruz won’t hesitate to blast his Republican Senate colleagues for betraying conservative principles, but he lays off Trump because the Donald can help slingshot him to the Republican nomination.
Politicians of all stripes do stuff like this all the time, but Cruz rose to prominence by swearing up and down that he’d be different from the “Washington cartel” that he so often lambastes. So when Cruz appears alongside Trump to praise his opposition to the Iran deal or his hardline stance on immigration, just remember that Cruz doesn’t actually like or respect Trump as a politician, and he doesn’t view Trump as a true conservative. It’s just an act that he’ll keep up until he can profit from Trump’s decline.