Ted Cruz’s Balancing Act: Anti-Trump or Trump Lite?

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Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz Campaigns In Southern California
Ted Cruz is not the most natural unity candidate. Photo: David McNew/2016 Getty Images

Ted Cruz took a break from his usual performance as a hammer-headed movement conservative yesterday and tried on the ill-fitting, but perhaps essential, clothes of a party unifier while in a private meeting of New York Republicans, according to a report from Politico’s Katie Glueck.

Ted Cruz on Monday acknowledged he’s concerned about how a contested convention might “fracture” the party ahead of the general election, especially if Donald Trump lashes out should he lose the primary.

There is no doubt, we are likely headed to a contested convention,” the Texas senator told a private gathering of Republicans here in Manhattan, according to audio of the meeting obtained by POLITICO. “One of the greatest risks of a contested convention is, if you come out with a party fractured, it potentially makes you vulnerable going into the general election. I believe, in a contested convention, we’ll have a strong advantage and we will earn the majority of the delegates and unify the party. But in that circumstance it’s not difficult to imagine Donald Trump getting very upset, and making his upsetness [known].”

This solicitude for the feelings of Trump and his supporters is impressive for the guy who in the vocabulary of the mogul’s campaign is routinely referred to as “Lyin’ Ted.” But it’s a real issue for him. If he’s the nominee, he’s already going to be a general-election underdog. Dealing with a Trump Rump faction, whether or not it encompasses a third-party or indie campaign, could be fatal for Cruz. And he does have some natural ties to the Trump constituency in terms of being a Republican more eager to shoot terrorists as they allegedly cross the border than over in some godforsaken Middle Eastern country. 

At the same time, though, Cruz cannot really start worrying about Trump voters until he’s fully used the #NeverTrump movement to put himself into a position to win the nomination. If Cruz goes out of his way to remind Republican officeholders that he was their nightmare candidate until Trump showed up as the real devil, the temptation to go for the gold in a contested convention and blow up Cruz on a third ballot after Cruz blows up Trump on the second ballot will be powerful. 

Beyond all that, you just don’t get the sense that the junior senator from Texas was cut out to be a unity figure, even for a party suddenly divided between Satan and everybody else. Unity candidates are reassuring and have a knack for making you see your own reflection in their soft and soulful eyes. Cruz has the persona of someone who’s been told by his crazy father a thousand times that God has chosen him to redeem America from its secular socialist captors. He’s in the presidential race not to unite Republicans but to smite Babylon and maybe bring on the End Times. He thus does not represent a natural compromise between those who want to lower their marginal-tax rates and melt the polar caps and those who mainly want to ensure they’ll never have to “press one for English” or hold their tongues in the presence of women and minorities ever again.

Cruz’s ultimate appeal to non-apocalyptic Republicans is as a necessary evil in an extreme situation. That’s a low bar all right, but not one Ted Cruz will leap with any height to spare.