Even though it was just a few months ago, it’s difficult now to recall the time when Ted Cruz and Donald Trump were friends. Not just friends, actually – they were a happy pair of anti-establishment rogues who spent the late summer and early autumn palling around on the campaign trail together. They had super-secret one-on-one meetings in New York, arranged at Cruz’s request. In addition to being so disgustingly friendly in public, they made a point to refrain from attacking one another, even though they were both running for the same job.
“Donald and I are friends,” Cruz said on Fox News last July. “I like Donald because he is brash, he is bold and he speaks the truth.” Asked if he was concerned at all about Trump’s tone and his “incendiary” comments, Cruz brushed it off. “He speaks in colorful terms,” Cruz said of his good pal Donald Trump. “An awful lot of Republican 2016 candidates went out of their way to beat him with a stick. And I'm not going to join them.” Cruz took a lot of heat for standing up for Trump, especially as Trump’s attacks on his fellow candidates, Muslims, immigrants and women intensified. But Cruz steadfastly refused to turn on the Republican front-runner, claiming the media was simply trying to stir up trouble between the candidates.
For Cruz, the alliance was part of a strategic calculation. He, like so many other people, was convinced that the Donald Trump 2016 phenomenon had a short shelf life. He figured that once voters started getting serious about the campaign and began paying attention, they’d see through Trump’s shallow appeal and gravitate toward a more “serious” candidate. By making nice with Trump, Cruz was positioning himself to be the primary beneficiary of the Trump collapse he believed was sure to come.
But the collapse never came, and Trump started methodically dismantling his other opponents – low-energy Jeb, little Marco – until there was really only one person left for him to attack: Ted Cruz. And Trump is going after Cruz in typical fashion: by questioning his character (“Lyin’ Ted”) and lobbing attacks at his family. Cruz, as one might expect from anyone in this situation, is livid. And he’s clapping back at Trump hard. “It's not easy to tick me off. I don't get angry often,” he told reporters, “but you mess with my wife, you mess with my kids, that'll do it every time. Donald you are a sniveling coward.” As Josh Barro points out, though, this hard-ass anti-Trump routine is tough to take seriously given that Cruz spent so much time sucking up to Trump and still refused to back away from his pledge to support Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee.
Well, the Cruz/Trump rift seemed to come to a head last week when the National Enquirer ran a completely unverified story about Cruz having a series of extramarital affairs. Cruz laid blame for the story on Trump, writing on Facebook: “For Donald J. Trump to enlist his friends at the National Enquirer and his political henchmen to do his bidding shows you that there is no low Donald won't go.” (The Daily Beast reported last week that allies of Marco Rubio were shopping around Cruz infidelity rumors, which is hilarious.) Cruz also made a point of highlighting former Nixon aide and Trump confidant Roger Stone’s apparent involvement in the story, saying: “Mr. Stone is a man who has 50 years of dirty tricks behind him. He’s a man for whom a term was coined for copulating with a rodent. Well, let me be clear: Donald Trump may be a rat, but I have no desire to copulate with him.” (That term is, as you might have guessed, “ratfucking.”)
But still, even with the attacks on his wife and the accusation that he planted a false story with a sleazy tabloid, Cruz is hedging on whether he’ll honor his pledge to support Trump as the nominee. “I don't make a habit out of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my family,” Cruz said on Friday, “and Donald Trump is not going to be the Republican nominee.” That’s closer than he’s ever come to rescinding his promise, but it’s still not definitive.
And that raises an obvious question: what exactly would Donald Trump have to do for his erstwhile good friend Ted Cruz to state in clear, unambiguous language that he will not back Trump as the nominee? This question dogged all the former candidates who found themselves the focus of Trump’s attacks – they all decried the impact Trump was having on the race and the damage he was doing to the party, but none would pledge to withhold their support if Trump won the nomination. Cruz now finds himself the focus of these questions because he’s the only viable Trump alternative remaining, and because he’s come under the most personal attack yet from Trump.
Saying “Donald Trump is not going to be the Republican nominee” doesn’t cut it, because right now Trump is very likely going to be the nominee. After working so hard to stay in the front-runner’s good graces, Cruz now finds himself having to tear Trump down and fast. But he lacks credibility due to all the unseemly praise he lavished on Trump when he thought it would ultimately redound to his benefit. Trump has given him all the incentive he needs to break his pledge, but Cruz still can’t quite bring himself to do it.