Approximately three minutes and 30 seconds into Ted Cruz’s Indiana speech announcing the end of his 2016 presidential campaign, he announced the beginning of his 2020 presidential campaign — before he had even said the words that made his retreat from the field of battle official. For years, Cruz had been telling conservatives about Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the great reversal against Carter’s liberalism. But now, in defeat, he spoke about Ronald Reagan in 1976, the year the Gipper came close to beating Gerald Ford in the Republican primary but came just short of the finish line.
Cruz’s ambition and self-regard is all-consuming. He seems to have possessed a single-minded determination to become president from the time his classmates were falling off of monkey bars. So it’s a fair bet that he woke up the morning after the Indiana primary and started to make plans. But how should he play his hand as Trump flails his way to the general election?
That’s been one of the most common topics of discussion at the Republican Party of Texas convention. This is Cruz’s home base, and Texas’ party activists are the reason Cruz rose to prominence in the first place. Now, they’re in mourning. The convention was an unusually low-energy affair for a GOP gathering, with a lot of empty seats and a disorganized, bitter atmosphere. Delegates lined up at the convention’s trade show to hand-write condolence notes to Cruz and his family. Rafael Cruz gave a mournful address Thursday night in which he told his audience that Ted’s last chapter hadn’t been yet been written. “Though the righteous may fall seven times, he rises again,” he said. “We will not stop fighting.”
On Saturday, Cruz addressed delegates for some 25 minutes, making his first big public appearance since he dropped out of the presidential race. He was introduced by his wife, Heidi, who related that their 8-year-old daughter had, on the campaign trail, offered a pearl of wisdom that just so happened to mimic the line Ted’s consultants were feeding the media: When people really get to know Ted, they vote for Ted. (That seemed to be true, until it wasn’t.)
Cruz emerged to a lengthy standing ovation. “God bless the great state of Texas,” he exhorted. “Wouldn’t Heidi have made an amazing first lady? Wouldn’t Rafael have made an amazing first dad?” Wouldn’t I have looked cool on Marine One?
In a way, he was happy to be back home, to sleep in his own bed, to have his daughters back in school, he said. (His daughters never had to leave school, of course — they were dragged across the country over and over to help the lukewarm Ted seem like a family man.) And it was good to be back with his people, the real people, the good, real people of Texas.
The rest was substantially the same stump speech Cruz has given for four years. He talked issues a little — guns, taxes, and now bathrooms — but he also continued to sell himself and his story, even though there’s really nothing to sell anymore, and though the Dallas crowd had heard this speech many times before.
The pundits, he told the crowd, had described his 2012 U.S. Senate campaign as “absurd.” They said Ted “didn’t have a prayer.”
But he triumphed, and a few years later they said the same thing about his presidential bid. The mainstream media, those dumb bastards, told Ted there was “no chance on earth” he would become president. “It was the men and women of Texas that believed.” And their belief was rewarded. It was an amazing feat, a great spiritual victory, to have come from a field of 17 Republicans and “beat 15 of those candidates.”
In part because the nation kept looking for a Trump-beater, the new narrative is that Cruz was a strong second, who performed unusually well. That if not for Trump, Cruz might have won this year, and that his strong performance in 2016 bodes well for him in the future.
But there’s not really any justification for that belief. Ted Cruz won 11 states this year. That’s the same number of states Rick Santorum won in 2012, and a few more than the 8 states Mike Huckabee won in 2008, which is to say that Ted Cruz did about as well as the best-performing evangelical-friendly no-chance candidate in recent years, and no better, even though he won a slightly different set of states than the other guys.
As for the love and belief of Texas propelling Cruz forward, Cruz did worse in his home state primary than any other Republican in the party’s history, though he was saved from permanent disgrace by Rubio’s terrible result in Florida two weeks later. He showed relatively little ability to appeal to voters outside of his core constituencies, and those problems have to do with his righteous demeanor, alienating behavior and reputation for truculence, which seem difficult to change in a few years.
No matter. Cruz said he would transcend the limitations of the people’s will by becoming, once again, a leader of the conservative movement in the great mid-Atlantic dungheap, Washington. And if this election seems like a defeat for movement conservatives, Cruz said, don’t fall for the liberal media hype: “A lot of media commentators are using this election to try to write the epitaph for conservatives.”
Wrong. “America is and remains a center-right country,” he said, “A country that embraces the Judeo-Christian values that built this country.”
“I am convinced,” he added, that “the men and women here will be the remnant, will be the core of pulling this nation back from the abyss.”
But as the Cruz family stares into the abyss, the abyss stares also into the Cruz family. Ted hopes to have an outsized say in the drafting of the national platform at the Cleveland convention. So Texas Republicans made Rafael, the paterfamilias, an at-large delegate. Which means that this summer, Rafael will be there in person to witness firsthand the nomination of the man who implicated him in the Kennedy Assassination.