Last night in Cleveland, Ted Cruz launched his 2020 campaign for president by knifing the 2016 nominee in the chest live on national television.
It was brilliantly done — congratulating Donald Trump by name for his victory right at the start, then delivering a powerful, moving speech that united his own favorite themes with many of the most potent populist issues that Trump has used to fire up his followers, and finally withholding an endorsement while instead urging viewers to "vote your conscience" in November. As Cruz struggled to complete his remarks over the outraged boos of the crowd, you could almost see it in his eyes: "Yes, I did. You'll thank me later."
The brilliance shone not only in the rhetorical skill with which Cruz got the audience, filled with Trump enthusiasts, to drop its guard before he thrust in the dagger. It also radiated from the act itself — an expression of pure defiance, a refusal to bow down dishonorably before raw power as so many others in his party have done and continue to do. (I'm looking at you, Mike Pence.)
But of course in politics, no noble act is ever undertaken in complete disregard for self-interest. And what Cruz did on Wednesday night was absolutely essential for his future presidential ambitions.
Assuming Trump loses in November — which he almost certainly will — Cruz will be the presumptive frontrunner heading into 2020. Out of an enormous field of 17 candidates, he came in a solid second this year. He maintains strong ties to powerful Republican donors. And he negotiated his exit from the race with consummate political skill, managing to secure a prime-time speaking slot at the convention while never outright endorsing the party's polarizing nominee.
The last of these achievements — carved in granite after Wednesday night — is crucial. Because Cruz's most plausible path forward involves turning himself into a drastically new and improved version of Donald Trump.
And the first step in launching Trump 2.0 is to remain untainted by the catastrophe of Trump 1.0.
Like so many members of his party, Cruz at first misunderstood the source of the populist anger that catapulted him to the Senate in 2012. Assuming that the Tea Party craved greater ideological purity from Republicans, Cruz consciously transformed himself into an avatar of True Conservatism, eager to take uncompromising public stands designed to demonstrate his own incorruptible devotion to the conservative ideals that have oriented the GOP since the time of Reagan (including support for upper-income tax cuts, free trade, and relatively open immigration).
But once the 2016 race got underway and Donald Trump took his early lead in the polls, Cruz recognized that something else was going on. Here was a candidate who showed no particular attachment to Reaganite gospel or ideological coherence of any kind — and he was winning. Trump was a candidate of attitude. Feeling. And the prevailing feeling was anger — not about high taxes on the wealthy or gay marriage, but about American decline, threats posed by various outsiders (especially Mexican and Muslim immigrants), and the incompetence and stupidity of the people who ran both parties.
For the next few months, Cruz kept as close to Trump as he could in the hopes that when Trump's quixotic campaign imploded, he (Cruz) would be the beneficiary. But the implosion never happened.
Plenty of powerful Republicans appear to have convinced themselves that the stupendous, wildly improbable success of Trump 1.0 was a fluke — that as soon as he loses the general election, things will go back to normal, with the party reconstituting itself along roughly the same old lines, with the same old ideas and factions wielding the power and setting the agenda.
This is a self-serving fantasy — and Cruz is shrewd enough to see that. The Trump voters constitute the largest single bloc of voters in the party, and they aren't going to disappear when their champion goes down to defeat, any more than their anger is going to dissipate. They will be on the lookout for a new tribune — one who can win a general election.
That's where Cruz will get his second chance.
Trump 2.0 needs to be an ideologically and temperamentally disciplined reboot of the original — a sleeker and smarter version that taps into the valid concerns of Trump voters without flattering quite so many of their prejudices. It will actively and proudly defend "the national interest abroad and national solidarity at home," as well as "define America's overseas goals in more achievable terms than the Bush-era 'freedom agenda' or a Hillary Clinton-in-Libya liberal interventionism; promise support to workers buffeted by globalization; and explicitly weigh questions of community and solidarity when … set[ting] tax rates or immigration levels."
Those are quotations from a recent New York Times essay by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, two writers who warned their fellow conservatives eight years ago that they risked alienating large numbers of Republican voters by failing to respond to their problems and concerns. Douthat and Salam's proposals, then and now, read like a reasonable, thoughtful version of what Trump, at times, has gestured toward, though without the gratuitous insults, narcissistic bluster, breathtaking recklessness, and outright ignorance about policy with which Trump himself invariably surrounds them.
Advocated by a compelling public speaker, embedded in a story of America's past achievements and future possibilities, delivered with passion and more than a hint of anger about the stagnation and drift of the recent past, they could form the core of a conservative ideology revamped and revitalized for the post-Trump era.
This is Ted Cruz's — and the Republican Party's — most plausible way forward after the crack-up of 2016. And with Cruz's speech Wednesday night, both of them took a tentative first step in the right direction.