Let's begin with a brief (but by no means comprehensive) recap of the utter chaos that has befallen the Republican Party and its chosen standard-bearer Donald Trump over the last few days:
Trump lashes out at the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq. Trump declines to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan or Sen. John McCain in their primary contests. Trump jokes that he's "always wanted" a Purple Heart after being gifted one by a supporter, adding, "This was much easier." Trump suggests that if he loses the election, it's because the contest will be "rigged." Joe Scarborough reports that during a foreign policy briefing, Trump repeatedly asked, "Why can't we use nuclear weapons?"
CNBC's John Harwood reports that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is "mailing it in" and that staffers are "suicidal." RNC chair Reince Priebus is said to be "apoplectic." Word leaks that Priebus and other high-profile Republicans are plotting an "intervention" to talk some sense into their candidate. ABC News reports that senior party officials are earnestly discussing how they would replace Trump on the ballot in the event he drops out of the race.
The week was an unmitigated disaster.
In an undisclosed location (presumably a lair of some sort), Ted Cruz smiles creepily and mutters, "Excellent."
The Texas senator is one of the few nationally known Republican politicians who can credibly claim to bear no responsibility for the Trump mess. In the event of a Trump-fueled Republican meltdown in November, Cruz will emerge in 2020 as the most prominent conservative untainted by the stink of the party's 2016 presidential nominee.
Cruz memorably distanced himself from Trump with his speech at the Republican National Convention, when, in a surprise move, he declined to explicitly endorse the party's nominee, instead telling conservatives, “Vote your conscience.”
In any other year, "Vote your conscience" would be a relatively innocuous statement for a politician to make, but in a speech to a divided party including a sizeable contingent that engaged in a vigorous, but ultimately fruitless effort to deny Trump the nomination until the last possible moment, Cruz's implication was clear. As one Cruz donor told the National Review: "[H]e goes and says, ‘Vote your conscience,’ which everyone knows meant, ‘F Trump.’ ”
"What was remarkable at that moment was that he put principle over party," says Beau Correll, a Republican delegate and Cruz supporter who was involved in efforts to deny Trump the nomination by unbinding delegates before the convention. "All across the board and all across the nation, establishment Republicans stepped away from their conservative values and went with Donald Trump. Cruz is one of the only non-sellouts in a sea of notable, well-known party figures."
Pundits quickly read Cruz's speech as a prelude to a 2020 presidential campaign, drawing comparisons to Ronald Reagan's 1976 RNC speech after losing the nomination to Gerald Ford, a moment often credited with building momentum for Reagan's successful White House bid four years later.
"Coming out of the convention after Cruz's speech, all of the idiotic talking heads were lambasting him and saying it was a suicide note," says Eric Minor, an RNC delegate from Washington state who supported Cruz during the primary process. "And that was just idiotic, because the real principled conservatives in that convention crowd were cheering him on and were so happy that he didn't endorse Trump."
Cruz took some short-term heat over his audacious gambit. Conventioneers loudly booed Cruz while he finished his speech. Delegates heckled Cruz's wife as she exited the convention floor. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump supporter, called Cruz's speech "too cute" and "selfish" on national television. A CNN poll found that Cruz's favorability ratings among Republican voters dropped from 60 percent before the convention to just 33 percent after his speech.
More importantly, the non-endorsement displeased Republican donors Cruz will want in his corner if he's to make a successful run in 2020. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, whom Cruz carefully courted as a political patron for years, reportedly turned Cruz away from his private suite after the speech. Hedge fund titan Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, who donated at least $11 million to a pro-Cruz super PAC in 2016, issued a rare public statement to the New York Times to say that they were "profoundly disappointed" in Cruz, calling his speech "regrettable and revealing."
But Cruz is playing a long game, betting that Republican donors and primary voters will forgive and forget in four years' time. And with every misstep from Donald Trump, Cruz's wager seems more likely to pay off.
If Trump's campaign continues on its current, drain-circling trajectory and ends in calamity for the GOP in November, Republicans who backed Trump, however reluctantly, will struggle to fully absolve themselves of Trump's toxicity. Some could suffer irreparable damage to their conservative credentials.
It's not difficult to envision Cruz attacking competitors mercilessly on this issue in a 2020 primary race, holding out his refusal to endorse Trump as a measuring stick of conservative purity that Vichy Republicans failed to live up to.
Nearly all of Cruz's potential 2020 primary challengers are vulnerable to these charges. Paul Ryan? Marco Rubio? Nikki Haley? Mike Pence? Tom Cotton? Chris Christie? Scott Walker? Kelly Ayotte? Every single one is on the record as supporting Trump, however tepidly.
Notably, John Kasich hasn't publicly announced that he'll back Trump, but the Ohio governor didn't make a national spectacle of his non-endorsement that will stick in the minds of conservative primary voters four years from now. (Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse is another potential 2020 contender who has declined to support Trump — his forceful repudiation of the Republican nominee that made Cruz's "too cute" approach look downright timid by comparison.)
"He is going to be one of the few nationally prominent Republicans that come out of this thing unscathed," says Minor. "He was the only one that was willing to stand up under fire on that stage, getting booed by all those Trumpkins at the convention, refusing to just follow the party line and throw his principles away."
In the early phases of the 2016 primary campaign, Cruz employed an electoral strategy of drafting behind the Republican frontrunner, avoiding confrontation and letting competitors suffer the consequences of sparring with Trump. Cruz's hopes rested on the theory that in due time — perhaps as a result of some particularly ill-advised string of gaffes — the bombastic Trump's shooting star would burn itself out and open a path to the nomination for Cruz.
Things didn't work out that way. GOP primary voters never soured on Trump, and as the field thinned, Cruz was drawn into a series of ugly personal attacks that saw Trump insult Cruz's wife and imply that his father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The drafting strategy was ultimately unsuccessful, but as Trump's campaign unravels, it appears that Cruz may not have been wrong after all — rather, he simply miscalculated the timeframe in which Trump's inevitable burnout would occur.
Cruz has been conspicuously quiet in the weeks since his convention speech, but it's a safe bet that he'll be reminding Republican voters of his bold stand soon enough.