Ted Cruz is like a Rorschach politician. Depending on whom you ask on the American right, he is either the most principled man in the Senate, or a shameless, spineless Machiavellian who does everything out of calculated self-interest.
So, which is he? Well, now we have conclusive evidence. After urging Republicans and Americans at the Republican National Convention to "vote their conscience," Cruz later remembered that others may vote their conscience, but he doesn't — and he ended up endorsing the bridge-and-tunnel Cheeto Jesus.
Ben Domenech, publisher of the online journal The Federalist, who is well plugged into the right, writes that there's one big reason why Cruz decided to endorse after all: pressure from his big donors. And in particular, the near-certainty (or so he thought) that if the election ends up close (as polls now look) and Trump loses, Cruz will face a primary challenger.
Megadonors and elections. So you see, it's all real Profiles in Courage stuff. As my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty noted, there are even a lot of people who agree with Cruz who still loathe him. Like them, my problem with Cruz is not his politics, but his character.
My skepticism came to a head with a particularly symbolic moment, which definitely ranked as the most cynical political stunt of the year. Cruz was invited to a nonpartisan, ecumenical gathering in support of Middle East Christians, who were and are the victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria. But there was a problem. A blogger discovered that one of the groups in attendance had said some not-nice things about Israel. And it's true that many groups of Middle East Christians view Israel unfavorably — just as many others view it favorably. And it's also true that Israel had nothing to do with the point of the gathering, which was to bring together Christians regardless of their differences. But Cruz, who was already running for president, and whose entire strategy was on being the blameless right-winger, could already see the headline: "Cruz supports adversaries of Israel." So what did he do? He took the stage, launched into an irrelevant and patronizing rah-rah Israel speech. When people groaned, he called them — literally among the most powerless people in the world, people being slaughtered by jihadists — anti-Semites and left. That moment, the chutzpah, the cynicism, the gall of it, seemed to boil down Cruz's character to its essence.
So that's why I supported Cruz's Tea Party half-brother, Marco Rubio, in the primary. And in a year where everything is changed, where down is up and up is down, I watched Rubio, whom I trusted, beclown himself by endorsing Trump after declaring him a con artist unfit for the presidency, and stammer his way through non-explanations of how his endorsement is consistent with his denunciations of Trump.
Meanwhile, it was Cruz who was the principled man. He gave his "conscience" speech in Cleveland, annoyed a lot of people, defended it well, and receded into the background. He looked... My Lord, he looked honorable.
And all of a sudden, I was rethinking Cruz. Maybe the Middle East Christians thing was a fluke or a misunderstanding. Maybe his always hyper-calibrated position-taking is just intelligence, and not evidence of a lack of a core. Maybe I should just ignore the stench of putrid self-interest that accompanies his every move, his every utterance. Maybe someone with such a lovely and accomplished wife can't be all bad.
Well, looks like I was right the first time! And more importantly, you can bet that my trajectory is going to be the trajectory of most conservatives from here to 2020, an election for which you can bet your life Ted Cruz is running.
If there's one thing Cruz was successful at, it was building a movement. His conservative supporters loved him, they trusted him, and they would have given their lives for him. And a lot of them were also #NeverTrump conservatives. As I said, I might have been the first to sign up for the #CruzCrew in 2020, if he'd kept up the endorsement to the end, and proved his moral courage.
Now, Ted Cruz is a man without a rationale and, therefore, without a presidential future. In 2016, there was a clear rationale for the Ted Cruz candidacy. Love him or hate him, he clearly stood for something, and that mobilized a lot of people, allowing him to place an honorable second.
Now, what does Ted Cruz stand for? He doesn't stand for conservative principle or anything else.
Oh, well, I guess he's standing for reelection. So there's that.