On Friday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz swallowed his pride and made his public declaration of support for Republican nominee Donald Trump. The endorsement surprised — and even angered — a host of conservatives who had looked to Cruz as the standard-bearer of the #NeverTrump movement, a man who had publicly refused to endorse the nominee at the Republican National Convention, declaring instead: “Vote your conscience!”
Now, that hero for anti-Trump conservatives has seemingly reversed himself. Prominent pundits like Ben Howe and Erick Erickson have attacked him for it.
Ted Cruz: Constitutional principled conservative (offer not valid when reelection in danger)
— Ben Howe (@BenHowe) September 23, 2016
So why did Cruz do it? His Facebook post gave two primary reasons: “First, last year, I promised to support the Republican nominee. And I intend to keep my word. Second, even though I have had areas of significant disagreement with our nominee, by any measure Hillary Clinton is wholly unacceptable — and that’s why I have always been #NeverHillary.” Naturally, Cruz could have opposed Hillary in May (when he dropped out) or July (at the RNC) by publicly endorsing Trump, if this is his full reasoning. There must be something else going on.
Cruz went on to list six reasons why he could not stomach a Hillary Clinton presidency, but recent moves on behalf of the Trump campaign suggest a better explanation for his sudden reversal — one not entirely removed from the reasons he opposes Hillary.
1. The Supreme Court.
The first key policy difference between Clinton and Trump that Cruz mentioned was the Supreme Court. Clinton would appoint “a left-wing ideologue,” while Trump has promised to appoint justices “in the mold of Scalia.
But Trump made a public announcement — merely an hour before Cruz endorsed him on Friday — that he would be adding names to his Supreme Court list. One of those names, Utah Senator Mike Lee, is among Cruz’s closest friends and allies in Congress. The move also suggests that the Texas senator himself might be considered for the nation’s highest court. If so, this would be a huge incentive for Cruz to make such a public reversal. (Incidentally, both Cruz and Lee ranked among the few names some conservatives hoped to see on Trump’s original list, but were left off.)
Next Page: Internet freedom and Trump’s rising poll numbers.
2. Internet freedom.
Cruz has made Internet freedom a key issue this month, in debates over the most recent government funding proposition. On Wednesday, the Trump campaign announced its support for his initiative. This was a rather unorthodox move for a presidential nominee to make, publicly siding with a senator’s specific proposal. And while the Internet is a big issue, Cruz’s ICANN position isn’t exactly on the top of most voters’ minds.
3. Trump’s poll numbers.
A reasonable observer needs only to look at the RealClearPolitics polling average between Clinton and Trump to see yet another reason why Cruz switched sides in September. In July, before the Republican National Convention, Clinton was leading Trump by a wide margin. It made sense for the Texas senator, hot off Trump’s many insults (“Lyin’ Ted,” attacks on Cruz’s family, and the pitiful conspiracy theory that Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination), to play coy with the Republican nominee.
It could be said that Cruz was “betting” that Trump would fail, and in early July that was a very good bet. Now, however, the polls have closed, and Clinton is a mere 3 points ahead. In a closer race, Cruz cannot afford to sit on the sidelines, especially with the Republican National Committee starting to complain about 2016 candidates refusing to endorse the nominee. Which brings me to …
4. Reince Priebus.
This past Sunday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus made a subtle threat against Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Priebus referred to a pledge signed by all 2016 Republican presidential candidates to support the party’s eventual nominee. A few of the candidates had not fulfilled that pledge, and clearly harbored future presidential ambitions. When the RNC formulates rules for the next presidential cycle, the chairman added ominiously, “I don’t think it’s going to be that easy on them.”
The pledge was originally introduced to prevent Donald Trump from running third party. In a March 30 debate, Cruz, Kasich, and Trump seemed to distance themselves from the pledge, in a mutual breaking of the pact that arguably freed them from it (since one of them would become said nominee). Nevertheless, after Priebus’s threat, Cruz made sure to list his adherence to the pledge as one of his reasons for supporting Trump.
To be fair, the Republican nominee had also threatened to support a primary challenger against Cruz in his 2018 Senate re-election campaign. Trump went so far as to appear publicly with former Texas Governor Rick Perry, implicitly adding support to the one potential challenger who polled well enough to pose a serious threat to Cruz.
Next Page: One other reason.
5. Mike Pence.
One more key event happened in the past week that might have gotten Cruz to reconsider his anti-Trump position. In the past few days, the Texas senator reportedly met with Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who briefly endorsed him in the primary before his state favored Donald Trump. Pence is well-known as a stalwart conservative, despite his public surrender on religious freedom last year.
Pence is likely to understand Cruz well, and to have presented arguments — and likely incentives — for Cruz to reconsider his opposition to Trump. It is even possible that Pence carried an apology from the Republican nominee to his former rival. Many angry Cruz supporters would doubtless like to see this apology if it existed, but Trump’s pride likely kept him from allowing it to be made public.
These five reasons explain what could have driven the Texas senator to make this stunning reversal, but it is unlikely any conservative who was moved by Cruz’s declaration to “vote your conscience” at the RNC will accept this endorsement lightly. Many will consider this conservative stalwart a sell-out for his decision, and they have some reason to do so.
For this reason, it seems likely to me that Cruz was offered something from the Trump camp: be it an apology, a potential Supreme Court pick (himself or Mike Lee), an offer to drop the potential primary challenge in 2018, or even the public support for ICANN. The term “bribe” might be an exaggeration, since Cruz was likely to end up supporting Trump anyway, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Iowa Representative Steve King prophesied at the RNC.
Whether or not conservatives accept Cruz’s late endorsement, these reasons should explain why he did what he did. Unfortunately for John Kasich, the Texas senator’s mention of “keeping his word” on the pledge raises questions about the Ohio governor’s responsibilities. Or perhaps opposition to Trump will be left to Kasich alone — now wouldn’t that be ironic.