Donald Trump could not have invented a better foil than Ted Cruz.
Senator Cruz took the stage Wednesday night and yanked the chair out from under Mike Pence, the vice presidential candidate who would have been, in any other convention, the evening’s star.
Delivering a stemwinder of a speech, Cruz stopped short of endorsing Trump. He exhorted Republicans to vote their conscience, adding a weak “up and down the ticket” to make it seem like he wasn’t calling for a delegate revolt.
Did Trump know Cruz would decline to endorse him?
Wow, Ted Cruz got booed off the stage, didn't honor the pledge! I saw his speech two hours early but let him speak anyway. No big deal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 21, 2016
Maybe he saw it and maybe he didn’t, but Trump knew he’d win either way.
This wasn’t politics. This was professional wrestling. Entertainment of the highest and lowest order. Trump has known this all along. Cruz still can’t admit it to himself.
Trump knew that if Cruz endorsed, great. An endorsement would signal Trump’s leg drop on the entire GOP, a crushing final blow leaving the party floundering on the mat.
But no endorsement, in a sense, was an even better outcome, because every hero needs a villain.
Cruz knew he was part of the game. He called out the New York delegation by name—after all, New Yorkers and their values have been his enemy all along—when their chanting disrupted his flow:
I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation.
He appreciated the jeers and taunts from New York as much as a person appreciates the chance to run barefoot through a field of poison ivy. He knew that he’d been set up to make Trump seem like even more of an outsider, someone who a sitting senator would attack even at his own nominating convention.
But Cruz also thinks he’s playing for 2020. He hopes that in four years’ time, the GOP will come running back to him, the lone man who didn’t cave to Trump.
There’s a big hitch in that giddyup.
Cruz’s refusal to endorse isn’t just a slap in the face to Trump. It’s a slam on all of the Republicans who did endorse him.
During a Clinton presidency, Cruz won’t be able to resist pointing out at every opportunity that he alone continued to speak out against Trump. That will be the stick he uses to beat back Republican challengers.
And nobody likes the guy who continually points out that he was right after all.
You would think Ted Cruz would have that figured out by now.
Ted Cruz, however, still thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. Last night’s speech will become a central theme of his 2018 senatorial campaign and his 2020 presidential forray, his bona fides as a true outsider and conservative hero. He’ll crow about being called a loser by Donald Trump.
But if enough Republicans and far-right fringe voters stay home or decline to vote at the top of the ticket, heeding his call to vote their conscience, Cruz will be the loser who helped elect Hillary Clinton.
And every Republican running against Cruz will have that to pin on him. Plus every other time he thwarted their plans.
Ultimately, Cruz’s choice to turn politics into a game he’s playing, a debate strategy, will take him down.
He may be calculating his moves like a chess player, focused on 2020, but the rest of his party is playing 52 card pick-up like toddlers up past their bedtime, drunk on cake and Kool-Aid.
His speech last night felt like the villain’s soliloquy in the climactic scene of a Bond movie, Cruz lording it over all of us how he and he alone has the brilliance and foresight to stand up to Donald Trump.
We all know how that turns out for the villains.