Going into the 2016 presidential campaign, Ted Cruz was the classic young-man-in-a-hurry. His first run for public office had been in 2012; by conventional standards, he had no business speaking up in the Senate, much less running for president. He had alienated an awful lot of important people in his party with his grandstanding and irresponsible behavior in the midst of multiple fiscal crises. He had been especially damned for doing something that violated every rule of Washington: crossing the impermeable barrier between the two chambers of Congress to foment rebellion among House conservatives.
But Cruz was a man with a plan: Aside from his formidable fundraising and organizational skills, he was sure that a bitter mood among Republican base voters would reward his insubordination and lack of experience and outflank his many Establishment Republican rivals. He was absolutely right about the mood of primary voters, but didn’t count on someone less conventional than himself catching fire.
Even after Donald Trump rained on Cruz’s parade, the Texan (nearly a quarter-century younger than his vanquisher) looked to have a very bright future in the presumed ruins of the GOP after the inevitable general-election defeat. He worked hard to position himself as the principled conservative who finally put on the party yoke out of loyalty to the Troops late in the campaign season. He probably expected to greet the day on November 9 as the early front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2020, a year when Democrats would have thoroughly worn out their welcome.
Like so many other people in American politics, however, Cruz didn’t count on the unfathomable possibility that Trump would actually win.
As Tim Alberta explains in Politico Magazine, now Cruz has to deal with the narrower horizons of a back-bench senator who needs to work to be reelected.
It’s a bitter dose of reality. Cruz is only 46, brimming with brainpower and ambition, and yet he appreciates better than most the difficulty of winning a presidential nomination, much less the White House itself. Eight years is a long time—even the senator’s most bullish associates can’t conjure a scenario in which he’d challenge Trump in 2020—and by then there will be a new cast of talent and phenomena to contend with. What makes the wait so painstaking for Cruz, whose breakneck political metabolism powers an incessant quest for intellectual competition, is less his desire to occupy the Oval Office and more his euphoric addiction to running for president. It resulted in a crash after the campaign; Senate aides characterized him as grumpy and withdrawn, and friends worried he’d grown despondent without the rush of the trail.
Cruz has shut down his putative 2020 campaign operation and bent his efforts toward mending fences in the Senate and in a rapidly expanding Trumpland. Alberta tells us that “team player” is the watchword of all his friends and allies. His performance as the new administration’s attack dog in Jeff Sessions’s Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings was an unmistakable sign that the man the 45th president memorably called “Lying Ted” would now become a Trump loyalist, and hope for the best.
Beyond Cruz’s own future, what his saga could illustrate is that the “movement conservative” wing of the GOP is in the process of unconditionally surrendering to Trump’s nationalist populism, or whatever it is. After all, there are not two more stolid orthodox conservatives in Washington than Cruz and Vice-President Mike Pence. Both understand that the “base” activists their movement relies on are deeply in love with Trump, at the moment at least. If, just to cite a very real possibility, Cruz and Pence wind up being the two chief aspirants to the role of Trump’s political heir in 2024, will there really be any space for a “real” conservative? Will the term even many anything by then, other than loyalty to the mogul? It’s entirely possible it won’t, and the right end of the political landscape will be crowded with people like Ted Cruz, who will pretend they never even heard of #NeverTrump.