Let's dispense with this fiction that Ted Cruz knows exactly what he's doing

He doesn't know what he's doing.

I thought the senator from Texas was playing a smart long game by declining to endorse Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. To my mind, his decision would age well with the GOP base, many of whom may wish a few years from now they'd never supported Trump. While Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida looked like opportunists, coming around to endorse a man they had portrayed as unfit for the Oval Office, Ted Cruz could claim to be standing for conservative principles.

This afternoon Cruz endorsed Trump in a convoluted Facebook post. Excerpts:

First, and most important, the Supreme Court. For anyone concerned about the Bill of Rights — free speech, religious liberty, the Second Amendment — the Court hangs in the balance. I have spent my professional career fighting before the Court to defend the Constitution. We are only one justice away from losing our most basic rights, and the next president will appoint as many as four new justices. [...]

For some time, I have been seeking greater specificity on this issue, and today the Trump campaign provided that, releasing a very strong list of potential Supreme Court nominees — including Sen. Mike Lee, who would make an extraordinary justice — and making an explicit commitment to nominate only from that list. This commitment matters, and it provides a serious reason for voters to choose to support Trump.

Second, Obamacare. The failed healthcare law is hurting millions of Americans. If Republicans hold Congress, leadership has committed to passing legislation repealing Obamacare. Clinton, we know beyond a shadow of doubt, would veto that legislation. Trump has said he would sign it.

Third, energy. Clinton would continue the Obama administration’s war on coal and relentless efforts to crush the oil and gas industry. Trump has said he will reduce regulations and allow the blossoming American energy renaissance to create millions of new high-paying jobs.

Fourth, immigration. Clinton would continue and even expand President Obama’s lawless executive amnesty. Trump has promised that he would revoke those illegal executive orders.

Fifth, national security. Clinton would continue the Obama administration’s willful blindness to radical Islamic terrorism. She would continue importing Middle Eastern refugees whom the FBI cannot vet to make sure they are not terrorists. Trump has promised to stop the deluge of unvetted refugees.

Sixth, Internet freedom. Clinton supports Obama’s plan to hand over control of the Internet to an international community of stakeholders, including Russia, China, and Iran. Just this week, Trump came out strongly against that plan, and in support of free speech online. [...]

Finally, after eight years of a lawless Obama administration, targeting and persecuting those disfavored by the administration, fidelity to the rule of law has never been more important. [...]

Our country is in crisis. Hillary Clinton is manifestly unfit to be president, and her policies would harm millions of Americans. And Donald Trump is the only thing standing in her way.

A year ago, I pledged to endorse the Republican nominee, and I am honoring that commitment. And if you don’t want to see a Hillary Clinton presidency, I encourage you to vote for him.

Aside from Trump's little-noticed statement on internet policy, every point Cruz mentioned was as true before the RNC as it is now. Sure, Trump just added ten more names to his list of possible Supreme Court nominees, but anyone whose main voting issue is the high court should have landed in the Clinton or Trump camp months ago.

Cruz's speech in July reflected a high-risk, high-reward strategy. His favorability numbers took an immediate hit with Republicans. However, there was still a chance for a long-term payoff if Trump embarrassed himself in the debates and lost in a landslide.

Who will be impressed that Cruz belatedly lined up behind a man who insulted his wife and father and has never fought in the conservative trenches on any major policy issue?

Conservative talk radio host Steve Deace, an early Cruz endorser and an important ally before this year's Iowa caucuses, lamented on Facebook today,

Any minute now Ted Cruz is going to put his political future in the hands of Mike Pence and endorse Trump because of him. I hope trusting in Pence's moral courage works out better for Cruz than it did religious liberty in Indiana.

In a commentary at the Conservative Review website, Deace laid out a stronger warning:

There are five rules for political endorsements, ranked in order of priority:

1. It must advance your convictions/principles, otherwise it will have minimal impact and isn’t worth the risk.

2. It cannot violate your “brand” because if it does you risk substantial backfire, which can long out-live the endorsement itself.

3. It must mobilize your base to action and not split your base, otherwise the endorsement will pit you versus your own base.

4. It should have a reasonable expectation of return on political investment; whether that’s adding credit to your integrity, reinforcing your brand, electoral success, and/or raising your own profile.

5. It cannot risk you descending into self-parody, where you become an object of scorn in the social media age—because the internet never forgets.

Guess what potential endorsement currently being discussed in political circles violates every single one of these rules?

I agree with almost every point, but I would rephrase the third. Cruz didn't split his base today. His base has been split for a while. Most Republicans who backed Cruz for the nomination, including more than 51,000 people who caucused for him in Iowa, came around to supporting Trump months ago. Cruz already positioned himself against that group by not endorsing Trump at the RNC. His late gesture won't win much respect.

True believers like Deace despise establishment Republican leaders as much as (if not more than) Hillary Clinton. For them, #NeverTrump is a moral imperative, and Cruz now looks like every other craven career politician. Whether Trump wins or loses, these people will be shopping around for a new conservative hero.

Cruz lost his nerve. I thought he was smarter than that.

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