By Daniel Henninger, WSJ
Ted Cruz had a plausible election strategy, until Donald Trump stole it.
Ted Cruz has to be wondering: What happened?
In the wake of his third-place finish in Nevada, Mr. Cruz’s case for himself is: Don’t forget Iowa. He has come a long way.
In the fall of 2013, the freshman Texas senator rolled the dice so boldly that the biggest congressional Texan of all time, Lyndon Johnson, would have been agog. Sen. Cruz, with the whole Republican Party raging at him, pulled off a shutdown of the U.S. government. He publicized the shutdown with a 21-hour speech on the Senate floor, attacking other Republicans for not joining his Pickett’s charge against ObamaCare, then a federal law.
Ted Cruz knew amid this GOP chaos that he was going to run for president in 2016. He had the game plan in hand.
The plan was to make a household name for himself as the Republican Party’s best-known outsider. A narrative back then held that a deep wave of anger at the party’s leadership was building in the heartland. Ted Cruz was going to personally deepen the anger and then ride it.
It would surface with a victory in Iowa, which he got, build in South Carolina, and then surge through Super Tuesday and especially Texas with an unstoppable number of Cruz delegates fished from this angry Republican sea of outsiders—tea partiers, anti-immigrant voters, pro-Snowden libertarians, evangelicals and anyone foaming mad at Barack Obama. The mad-as-hell vote.
It was a plausible primary strategy, elegant even in its mathematical inevitability, despite the crushed-glass content.
Until Donald Trump stole the whole thing.
Sen. Cruz, the self-designed outsider, is getting killed by the outsider from hell.
Somewhere in the South on Super Tuesday Sen. Cruz may yet get back on track a plan that was going to let him thumb his nose at a resentful Republican Senate from behind that big desk in the Oval Office. More likely, Ted Cruz is about to join Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Chris Christie as a Trump trophy.
But this one is different. If Ted Cruz falls, he’ll take a lot of the activist right with him.
This was never a one-man show. The Cruz strategy was supported by an array of political factions whose goal was to make the Cruz candidacy a vehicle for seizing operational control of the Republican Party.
Those groups included political fundraising operations such as Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund, a variety of Web-based political entrepreneurs and white-hot radio.
Because the goal was seizing political power, the pitch to audiences wasn’t complicated. It was Us versus Them. We are “real conservatives,” and “they” are not. They are “the Establishment,” a term made up from nothing.
The distinctions were also simple.
Immigration: We are for “controlling the borders.” They are for “amnesty.”
Trade: They are for trade promotion authority. Real conservatives are against TPA.
Both are serious issues, but policy details were an impediment to the takeover.
It was a kind of bitter fun while it lasted. It lasted until Donald Trump’s June 2015 presidential announcement in which he said: I’m just gonna grab all of that stuff . . . and make it simpler.
The Mexican-built wall, the Muslim ban, the trade war with China, whatever. By the time we all got to South Carolina, Donald Trump had transformed Ted Cruz and the “real conservative” insurrection into . . . the Establishment.
He is killing them. He is reaping the politics they worked to sow—on immigration, on trade and on inchoate anger.
Exit polls show Sen. Cruz winning a plurality of the “very conservative” vote. But there aren’t enough “very conservative” voters to win anything now because Donald Trump is siphoning 33% of everything else.
The Cruz camp might argue that it has as much chance as Marco Rubio in a one-on-one contest against the Trump 33%. It’s far from clear, though, that the Rubio-Bush-Kasich vote would default to Sen. Cruz. The Cruz media-support operation for years has ridiculed vast swaths of the Republican Party, including lifelong Reagan conservatives, as the abhorrent “mainstream” or the “donor class.”
The goal was to separate them from Ted Cruz. It worked.
Also in pieces is the Cruz faction’s takeover of the Republican Party, what’s left of it. Conventional wisdom holds that the Trump insurgency is a hostile takeover of the GOP. It is not that.
Donald Trump is properly understood as running an independent candidacy from inside the formal structure of the Republican Party, as Mike Bloomberg did to run for mayor of New York City. Nothing remotely resembling a political party is associated with Mr. Trump. If he loses the nomination or the general election, he will walk away from his Republican supporters by dawn. The GOP will look like a forest shredded by a tornado.
Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich have to decide if the time has come to let Donald Trump define the Republican Party, or let the rest of the Republicans choose either him or someone else as the majority’s choice for their nominee.
Sen. Cruz already offered a defined choice for the Republican Party. Donald Trump owns that version. It’s a little late for Mr. Cruz’s Plan B.