Election 2020

The Cruz/Trump Buddy Phase of the Primary Is Officially Over

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks to Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at a break during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

It had to happen.

The Ted Cruz who came out swinging at Donald Trump on Thursday night is here to stay, now willing to not only answer Trump’s criticisms but to eagerly define his rival’s weaknesses as the 2016 race in Iowa becomes a two-man contest.

“Iowa is three weeks away,” Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said. “People want to know how you’re different. It’s time to tell how we’re different.”

It’s a dramatic shift for Cruz, who until this week either ignored or laughed off Trump’s occasional swipes, instead describing him at every turn as a “friend” whom he “likes and respects,” and appearing deeply reluctant to acknowledge disagreement with even Trump’s most controversial comments.

That kid-glove handling stemmed from Cruz’s desire not to alienate Trump’s many supporters. And aware that the Texas senator remains, for now, the second choice of some of those voters, the Cruz campaign is being careful to stress that the Texas senator is only responding to Trump after he picked a fight first by questioning whether Cruz, born abroad to a U.S. citizen, is eligible to run the country.

“We came prepared,” Tyler said of Cruz’s aggressive response on the “birther” issue, in which he cast Trump’s argument as a desperate gambit to recover lost ground in the polls.

Much to the chagrin of his many detractors on both the right and the left, Ted Cruz has turned out to be anything but the bombastic flamethrower that they thought he was, and continue to tell people he is despite all the evidence to the contrary. He is running a financially sound campaign that is positioning itself well for the long haul, and he’s a shrewd campaigner. True, he’s a little too lawyer-ish at times, but he hasn’t gotten to his place in the polls by accident.

Whether intuitively or through the collective reasoning of his advisers, Cruz seemed to be the only Republican candidate who immediately realized what was happening last fall. Trump was driving the daily news cycles and there was no upside whatsoever to getting into a one-on-one with him because the news organizations were more interested in giving disproportionate time to the Trump side of things.

While the other candidates went with conventional wisdom (“Trump can’t last”), Cruz understood that Trump’s mere presence had tossed conventional wisdom out the window. So he patiently watched as his rivals attacked Trump, only to end up dinged and spending political capital as far as a seemingly significant portion of the GOP electorate was concerned.

The trap so many neophyte candidates fall into is letting opponents define them early on in elections. This time it was the more veteran politicians who blindly walked into the Trump Sorting Hat and were assigned to various houses of scorn that they had to waste time attempting to get out of.

All Cruz did during that time was take a little heat for not engaging Trump and surge in the polls.

Many people last night were claiming that it would have been more helpful if Cruz had been attacking Trump in the early debates, the implication being that it would have inflicted some damage and Trump’s national lead wouldn’t be what it is now.

Nonsense. Cruz wasn’t in a position to inflict damage then and he knew it. He’s only able to now because he didn’t then, that much should be clear.

It would seem, however, that in this strange primary season there are a lot of veteran political observers who should know better but don’t.