Ted Cruz's epic downfall: How the Texas senator took Donald Trump to the brink — and then watched it all fall apart

A month ago, onlookers wondered if Cruz could actually win a convention fight against Trump. And now he's out

Published May 4, 2016 9:59AM (EDT)

 (AP/Patrick Semansky)
(AP/Patrick Semansky)

It seems strange to say this about the man who, until last night, was one of the last three people standing in a Republican presidential primary that has come to resemble a cross between "Rollerball" and Insult Night at the local Chuckle Hut, but Ted Cruz was always a terrible candidate for the GOP nomination.

Over the past couple of weeks, Cruz’s ineptness has already become crystal clear. As his campaign has imploded, he has flailed harder and harder in search of some game-changing moment to keep him going. He made noise about a contested convention and worked hard to plant his loyalists among the state delegations that will vote for the nominee in Cleveland, even as voters were telling him they hate that idea. He selected Carly Fiorina as a vice-presidential running mate, a move so desperate it’s a wonder that every TV in America didn’t start leaking flop sweat whenever images of the two together appeared on their screens.

Over the last few days, he has resorted to accusing media executives, particularly those at NBC and Fox, of rigging their coverage to favor Donald Trump because they all want to see the real-estate mogul as the nominee. The thinking seems to be either that the execs are all liberals who believe Hillary Clinton will have an easier time beating Trump in the fall, or that weird foreigner Rupert Murdoch is used to picking leaders of other countries and is trying to do so with the presidency. The subtext of the latter explanation: "Don’t let a gross quadruple-married Australian steal this election from honest, God-fearing Americans!"

Watching Cruz descend into madness in singular pursuit of his quest – “The Mosquito Coast” on the presidential campaign trail – has been eminently enjoyable for his legions of enemies and haters. The entire Cruz campaign, from its inception, has been one long delusion, as if the candidate and his followers spent the last 14 months on the holodeck of the Enterprise, running a “Presidential Election” simulator. Now reality is crashing in, which is always satisfying to watch.

It does seem a little strange to single out Cruz for losing touch with reality after a primary season that is about to see the country’s most prominent Obama Birther win the nomination. But the Texas senator’s campaign strategy was always flawed. And his actions as a senator -- most notably engineering a government shutdown meant to force the defunding of Obamacare in the fall of 2013, then denying responsibility for doing so when polls showed the public blamed Republicans for it -- should have been a more obvious warning that this was a man who has spun farther out of the planet’s orbit than Major Tom.

Let’s start with that strategy: From the beginning, Cruz contended that he would claim the nomination by winning over two groups: evangelical Christians and Reagan Democrats. In Cruz’s telling, these two demographics had become disengaged from politics in general and the Republican Party in particular. They had not come out to vote in 2008 or 2012 because the GOP had nominated John McCain and Mitt Romney, two RINO squishes who were not real conservatives. In their absence, Barack Obama had won two terms and set the country on a path to full-blown socialism. Only Ted Cruz, a true conservative, could reactivate the passions of those two groups, what he called the old Reagan coalition, and motivate them to turn out at the polls in the fall to put a Republican back in the Oval Office.

There was one huge drawback with this plan: To the extent that that old coalition exists, it had almost maxed out its voting potential in the last couple of elections. Turnout for self-identified evangelical and born-again Christians in 2012 was around 62 percent, slightly higher than turnout for the electorate overall. The idea that there are battalions of Christian soldiers just waiting for the right general to lead them to the polls is a fiction.

As for Reagan Democrats, we have had another name for them since the early 1980s: "Republicans." To the extent that the demographic of Democrats who went for Reagan in his two elections still exists, it has been shrinking as a share of the electorate for a couple of decades. Like with Christians, the idea that there is a hidden cache of them just waiting for the right leader is, in a word, garbage.

Cruz’s other tactic throughout the course of his campaign involved repeating nearly every shibboleth the conservative movement has absorbed from talk radio since at least Bill Clinton’s presidency. This made it hard to see where the candidate ended and, say, the Breitbart comments section began. On Planet Cruz, Democrats were going to start chiseling crosses off the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery any minute now. On Planet Cruz, Obamacare was a destructive piece of legislation that has led to millions of people losing their jobs and health insurance. (The truth, of course, is almost the exact opposite.)

With Cruz, no myth was too outlandish or ridiculous to be stated as fact to his audiences. (That he is losing to a conspiracy theorist like Trump only makes this more hilarious.) But it is not enough to just repeat this nonsense to people. You have to make them believe that you believe it. And in that, Cruz failed. His weird and offputting attempts to ingratiate -- the terrible Mr. Burns impressions, the unctuous speaking style that made him sound as if he was leading a seminar on a get-rich quick scheme -- all of it came off as calculated and phony.

One final area where Cruz failed was in his legislative activities in the Senate. Since the minute he arrived in 2013, Cruz has been a bomb-thrower, alienating nearly every colleague with showy filibusters and shutdowns that he thought would endear him to the base, even if they were worthless as parliamentary tactics. The result was an inflamed voter base that he thought he could harness and ride to victory. But the cost was that other Republicans in Congress were willing to publicly say that he is, well,  “Lucifer in the flesh.”

How did Cruz cover up his incompetence for so long, to the point that 14 other candidates were gone from the race before him? Well, for one, even Cruz’s worst enemies say that he is incredibly smart. (In fact, that is one of the traits they find most frightening about him.) He and his team came in prepared. He had a delegate-wrangling scheme in place from the get-go and used it to great effect, going into state conventions and picking off delegates that would have otherwise been bound to Trump. His campaign put on polished and slick rallies while those of his competitors, including Trump, sometimes felt ramshackle, thrown together.

Cruz had the mechanics of running a presidential campaign down cold. But Republican voters didn’t want an “authentic” conservative who probably has well-worn flash cards he used to memorize every policy position that an intern pulled from the #tcot hashtag on Twitter. They want an authentic human being, and that is where Trump, with his improvised speeches, his insults, his rough outer-borough accent, his entire gestalt, had Cruz easily beaten. Even if Trump is just playing the part, he’s a hell of a better actor than the senator from Texas.

In other words, Ted Cruz could not out-bullshit a genuine bullshitter. That reality is finally breaking through to him this week. It would be sad to watch, if he hadn’t engendered enough disgust to make it enjoyable.

By Gary Legum

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Primary Ted Cruz