It's good to be Ted Cruz.
He may not have the buzziest campaign of the 2016 cycle thus far, ceding the stage to standouts — like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina — who have hit a populist nerve. But Trump, Carson, and Fiorina — even more so than Sanders — are outsiders, and despite Cruz's penchant for making enemies and alienating people, he's playing a deeply inside game.
It's working like a charm. And his fellow insiders should be at least mildly terrified.
Here's the Cruz playbook. First, count on the other insider insurgents to flame out or fade. That's already happening to poor Rand Paul. (Things are so dire in the Paul camp that he's had to fall back on his father as a fundraising surrogate.) It's happening, in slow motion, to Scott Walker, whose lunkheaded approval of $80 million in public subsidies for a new NBA arena is just the latest indicator that he's not as conservative or compelling a candidate as his supporters had hoped.
The next puzzle piece to fall into place is Rick Perry. Even for Cruz, who has happily made himself a hate figure in the oh-so-collegial Senate, dumping on Perry would be bad form. It's essential to the Cruz campaign that Perry take himself out — and that's nearly a done deal, now, too.
With Cruz holding steady in the polls, the stage is just about set for him to emerge as the only "true conservative" in the race with the brains and the chops to match the purity. Although those qualities definitely prevent Cruz from beating Trump or Fiorina in the invisible populist primary, establishment types know full well that Cruz is the only viable candidate who the right's populists and elites can both stomach.
Of course, if Marco Rubio woke up tomorrow and decided to run to the right, that calculus would be upset in a hurry. But Rubio can't do that. He has to win the invisible elitist primary first. Rubio's playbook required that he keep pace with Jeb Bush, then let the party come to terms with the fact that Rubio had all the advantages of a Bush without the liability of the Bush name. But then Ohio Gov. John Kasich entered the race and showed surprising strength in the elitist primary, which makes Rubio's task more difficult and complicated — great news for Ted Cruz, because it means Rubio has to tack more to the center to protect his slice of the anti-populist vote from going either to Bush or Kasich.
Not long ago, people were convinced that more moderate candidates were destined to win GOP primaries. John McCain's and Mitt Romney's victories indicated that conservatives had to make do with vice presidential nominees. But neither McCain nor Romney had to contend with someone as savvy and put-together as Cruz. You don't have to be an Oscar-winning screenwriter to visualize how Cruz would have brought the boom down on those two.
Bush and Rubio are harder nuts for him to crack. But his ace in the hole is the populist vote, which at this point seems decidedly unwilling to settle for a Palin-esque consolation prize.
Then there are the billionaires. When Walker, Perry, and company falter and fail, the donors who backed them won't just take their marbles and go home. In fact, they're much more likely to bail beforehand, throwing their support to the most conservative candidate they think can stave off a full-blown populist revolt, sucking the disillusioned and disaffected back into the fold. And again, unless Rubio cuts right in a hurry, there's only one place for them to turn: Cruz.
That's why people jumped at the chance to believe recent (bogus) rumors that the billionaires, led by casino magnate Steve Wynn, had already decided to back Cruz. The logic behind that kind of backroom deal isn't some farfetched conspiracy theory. It's an open secret.
If you're a Republican who thinks Cruz can win in the general election, this is all great news. But if you don't, it's fairly scary. Because it means a sure loser has the surest path to the nomination — and the confidence to pursue it with no reservations.
Yes, that's right. Barring some unfathomable twist, Cruz will lose. For all his brilliant campaign strategy, that's one contingency Cruz still can't crack.