Ted Cruz Is Brilliant But His Strategy Sucks

How sucking up to The Donald for months has backfired on the Texas senator.

01.19.16 5:01 AM ET

It’s not a secret that Ted Cruz isn’t my first choice for the Republican nomination for president. His smug Poindexter affect, his smarm, sanctimony, and general derpiness all grate on me. There’s no doubt he’s smart, but while smart is necessary, it’s not necessarily sufficient.

That said, I’d rather Ted Cruz serve as leader of the free world for eight years than have Donald Trump in that role for eight minutes. Yet the inevitable, bloody conflict between Cruz and Trump that broke to the surface after the last Republican debate raises real questions about Cruz’s political judgment that Republican voters need to examine.

In August of last year, I described Cruz’s behavior toward Trump as “feeding the alligator in hopes that it eats him last.” As painful as it is for his fans to admit it, there’s only one person to blame for the situation in which Cruz now finds himself and that’s Ted Cruz. For six months now, Cruz has played the role of eager understudy and Trump lickspittle, praising nearly everything that spews from Trump’s mouth. Not only did Cruz set a land-speed record racing off to Trump Tower to pay obeisance to The Donald early in the process, he has taken almost every opportunity to lavish praise on even Trump’s most ridiculous and politically deadly policies. He has embraced and amplified messages that are poisonous among women, Hispanics, and even limited-government conservatives. Cruz has occasionally stepped back from the brink, but always while shoveling on fulsome praise for the notorious game-show host and con artist leading the Republican field.

Cruz made his bet, and his bed, early. He observed that Trump’s supporters were precisely like Obama’s 2008 fans: cultlike, fanatic, and instantly filled with white-hot rage at the slightest insult to The One. Cruz rarely said a harsh word about Trump, gambling that when the collapse came that he would inherit The Donald’s voters. Until his oblique and weak-kneed “Fonzie” and “New York values” snipes at Trump, Cruz could have easily been mistaken for a Trump surrogate, displaying the same obsequious bowing-and-scraping as Trump’s flying-monkey minions Dan Scavino, Michael Cohen, Roger “Number Two” Stone, and “Grifter Barbie” Katrina Pierson.

This isn’t the first time Cruz has displayed weak political judgment. It doesn’t matter what you think of the political and ideological fights he’s lost (and he’s lost almost all of them), he misread Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Barack Obama, and his colleagues in the U.S. Senate in the same way he misread Trump. When your political opponents have a gun to your head and can pull the trigger at any moment they choose, count on them to do so.

So while Donald Trump’s attacks on Ted Cruz are patently absurd (particularly Trump’s latest foray into birtherism), they’re not unexpected.  As much as Cruz touches conservative hot buttons, his record of not reading the political landscape properly and his inability to correctly identify risks should make anyone pause when considering a contest against Hillary Clinton.

Cruz needed to think of Trump’s behavior as Highlander, not Fonzie. There can be only One. Trump won’t relinquish his hold on the lead, it has to be taken from him. The irony of the hated “moderate” Jeb Bush being the only candidate putting real money behind ads hitting Trump (far too little, far too late, and featuring an idiotic detour attacking Marco Rubio), is rich. Cruz has the resources and the conservative pedigree to bring a case against Trump, but his political calculus has been so wrong for so long that he merely delayed The Donald’s strike against him.

When the strike came, the Trump Troll Party went into overdrive against Cruz. Ted Cruz, a man who checked every box on their agenda (and was perfectly acceptable as long as his lips were planted firmly on Trump’s posterior) was suddenly anathema. Cruz made a political category error in assessing the Trump supporters he so coveted; he thought they were driven by the talk-radio and fever-swamp media complex and a hatred of the Establishment alone. He was wrong; they’re also driven by their desire to be part of Trump’s personality cult. If there’s one thing no one will ever mistake Ted Cruz for, it’s a charismatic cult leader. Cruz scans more as the accountant for the charismatic cult leader than the guy ladling out the Kool Aid.

Cruz also believed that the weaponized purity-posse of Breitbart “News” and the rest of the birther-truther-ScamPAC rage-driven infrastructure that feeds off the credulous and the cretinous, would never turn on him. 

He should have been paying attention; many of these outlets have stopped being about advancing conservatism or serving as a counterweight to liberal media. They’re about monetizing fury, even if it means marginalizing candidates and messages that could make it possible to achieve a governing conservative majority and retake the White House. They’ve advocated for the last six months that all candidates not named Donald Trump must be destroyed. Not for ideological or political reasons, but because no one else brings in those sweet clicks, that ad revenue, and that ROI on the ScamPAC email lists.

At the point Trump entered this race, I assessed how the major actors in the GOP would respond to him. I was wrong. I believed the campaigns would individually and collectively recognize the danger Donald Trump posed to their candidacies. I believed that the donor class would cringe at the vast threat Donald Trump poses to the entire Republican Party, its brand, its prospects for expansion, and the nation. I believed conservatives would reject a man who demonstrably loathed almost every conservative value and principle until he decided to run for president. The candidates who understood the risks of Trump didn’t have the resources, but those with the resources to fight back instead operated from a combination of political cowardice (as in the case of Cruz) or in utterly misplaced hostility toward Marco Rubio, in the case of Bush.

All of them, however, have come to realize, in the words of Gov. Rick Perry, that Trump is a cancer on the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Unfortunately and regrettably, their responses have been late, slow, fearful, and inadequate.

However, it’s unlikely voters will forget that only one man in the field embraced Trump from the beginning: Ted Cruz. Cruz, with his reputation for intellectual horsepower and a brilliant legal and strategic turn of mind, today looks like a fool as Trump’s media enablers and political legions turn on the senator from Texas, tearing at his political carcass like hyenas.

Cruz bet the political farm on winning Iowa and he may still prevail there; it’s up in the air whether Trump’s celebrity game-show host mojo can offset what is widely reported to be a Potemkin field operation. If Trump continues his attacks with their current intensity and vitriol only two things might save him.

First, Cruz may garner political credit for being the first candidate to engage in protracted political combat with Trump, even though it’s only because Trump has his back against the wall. Voters may reward him for dropping the pretense that Trump is just another Republican candidate or that The Donald has any kind of conservative bona fides.

Second, if the vast all-in-for-Trump “conservative” talk-radio and new-right media infrastructure suddenly turns on The Donald in the coming days (and indeed they might ) Trump might lose some of the vital media adrenaline that sustains him. On Monday, talk radio was in a paroxysm of agony, trying to memory-hole months of Trump cheerleading and snapping into a defensive posture for Cruz. You could sense that they understood the monster they helped create is out of control, and now it’s a question of whether they can stop it. 

Ted Cruz may be brilliant, but the political gamble he’s taken is one only a fool would make. Win or lose in Iowa, it’s hard to see how Cruz’s lack of political judgment won’t haunt him, either now, or in the general election.