Ted Cruz Just Made Himself a Conservative Icon

Refusing to endorse Donald Trump was a genius career move.

Sen. Ted Cruz delivers a speech on the third day of the Republican National Convention on Wednesday at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

So many Republicans who’ve condemned Donald Trump as a demagogue, a boor, a con man, and a racist have nevertheless endorsed him that it’s hardly surprising that the delegates assembled at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night expected Ted Cruz to do the same. But he didn’t. Trump’s devotees were so livid about Cruz’s pointed refusal to endorse Trump that Ken Cuccinelli, a Cruz ally, felt moved to escort Ted’s wife, Heidi Cruz, away from the convention floor. There are possibly apocryphal stories floating around of an angry Trump supporter who had to be restrained from clocking Cruz in the jaw, and of a billionaire donor who barred Cruz from entering his suite and, presumably, from raiding the minibar. We can safely say that Cruz would do well to leave Cleveland posthaste, unless he wants to be tarred and feathered by ornery Trumpublicans.

The irony here is that, in the opening months of the Republican race, it was Cruz who did a great deal to legitimize Trump’s candidacy in the eyes of conservatives. As Republican strategist Curt Anderson told Washington Examiner columnist Byron York, “while others were attempting to stop Trump, Cruz was complimenting him and sucking up to him.” Anderson and other Republican insiders now say that Cruz is once again proving too clever for his own good—that all he’s done is make himself look like a disloyal snake. Yes, Trump may have accused Cruz’s father of having been involved in the assassination of JFK. And yes, Trump did retweet a crude insult of Cruz’s wife’s appearance. None of this matters, because Cruz once pledged to support the GOP nominee. Granted, Cruz made that pledge before Trump’s personal attacks on his family, and Trump made it clear that he had no intention of honoring the pledge that he himself had made, but, er, MALFUNCTION MALFUNCTION. Someone please call Newt to explain away these contradictions!

I mean, at the very least Cruz should have let Trump know that he wasn’t planning to endorse him. Um, actually, Cruz did let Trump know that well before his speech, and Trump gave Cruz a speaking slot regardless. Eliana Johnson of National Review reported that Cruz wasn’t going to endorse Trump days before the speech, and one hopes that someone on Trump’s staff reads the conservative press.

OK, let’s leave aside the question of whether Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump onstage was kosher. Since Republicans have united behind Trump’s candidacy, how can Cruz possibly recover from such a brazen act of disloyalty? Well, as recently as a few weeks ago, 48 percent of Republicans wanted the delegates at the RNC to somehow deny Trump the GOP presidential nomination. Not all of the 51 percent of Republicans who felt otherwise were enthusiastic about the prospect of a Trump candidacy either. Though many of the Republican delegates gathered in Cleveland were enraged by Cruz’s non-endorsement, one suspects that a decent-size slice of the Republican primary electorate was cheering him on.

If Donald Trump defeats Hillary Clinton and proves wildly popular in office, all bets are off. Ted Cruz’s political career may well be over. But if Trump is elected and his presidency is seen as a failure, or if Clinton is elected despite her grave political weaknesses, Cruz has put himself in a pretty decent position to run for the GOP presidential nomination once again. Cruz’s great weakness throughout the Republican primaries is that though he enjoyed the support of hard-right conservatives and churchgoing evangelical Christians, constituencies that overlap, more moderate Republicans found him repellent. Cruz has now earned himself a second look from Republicans by zagging where Marco Rubio and Scott Walker zigged.

None of this is to suggest that Cruz’s path to the White House will be an easy one. He’s still really weird and awkward. But Cruz doesn’t need to be elected president to have a big impact on the country. Jay Cost of the Weekly Standard, one of Donald Trump’s most scathing detractors in conservative media, has compared Cruz’s non-endorsement to Ted Kennedy’s stirring speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, which offered a full-throated defense of liberalism without also offering anything more than pro forma congratulations to Jimmy Carter, the Democratic nominee. That speech helped cement Kennedy as a liberal icon. If Trump goes down in November, Cruz’s Wednesday night speech could make him the GOP’s conservative standard-bearer for years to come. Not a bad consolation prize for Cryin’ Ted.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.