Ted Cruz Didn’t Get a Convention Invite. He Still Has Plenty to Say

Four years ago, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas delivered the most stunning speech of the Republican National Convention, conspicuously declining to endorse Donald J. Trump, his former presidential primary rival, and urging viewers instead to “vote your conscience.”

This time, well.

“They didn’t ask me to participate,” Mr. Cruz said in a phone interview from his home in Houston. “So, I’m not on the speakers’ roster.”

Amid the whiplashing loyalties and perpetual game theory of Trump-era Republicanism, Mr. Cruz is at once a singular figure — former antagonist, wannabe successor, current ally generally (convention lineups notwithstanding) — and perhaps the most striking exemplar of a certain kind of 2020 party leader.

He would like to be there for whatever comes after Mr. Trump, openly aspiring to run for president again if the opportunity presents itself. And like most Republican peers, he is not quite sure what will be there on the other side.

Mr. Cruz’s bet, as in his runner-up finish in the 2016 primary, is that ideological conservatism will eventually win the day, despite the manifest indifference many Trump supporters have shown toward some traditional stated priorities of the right, like controlling deficits.

Asked in the interview to make a convention-style case for Mr. Trump’s re-election on the spot, Mr. Cruz cited the “remarkable policy successes” of the last four years, paused for 12 seconds, then set off on an auditorium-ready, fully-composed celebration of tax cuts, deregulation and the “historic economic boom” that preceded the coronavirus.

Asked if Mr. Trump was making this argument effectively, the senator ruled: “Sometimes.” (Mr. Cruz made clear that he “would have been happy to” step to a microphone this week, if invited.)

As his state tries to manage the health and economic fallout from the virus, Mr. Cruz, 49, has sustained a longstanding push to remain in the national mix.

He hosts a popular podcast that began with Mr. Trump’s impeachment proceedings (“Verdict with Ted Cruz,” he plugged mid-interview), plans to release a book this fall about the Supreme Court (“each chapter focuses on a different constitutional liberty,” he enthused) and has tended to a puckish Twitter feed that seems to have grown more prolific in this period of relative social isolation, holding forth on “Comrade Pelosi” and a faux Democratic proposal to give each American “three soy lattes a day.”

“I try to have fun,” he said.

While other Republicans said to be interested in future presidential runs, like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were allotted convention speaking time on Mr. Trump’s behalf, those who know Mr. Cruz say his absence from the programming might well do more good than harm to his cause.

“I think the smart money is to lay low and see how this shakes out,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former Cruz aide who has opposed Mr. Trump. “It is a huge risk for speakers to try to hitch their star to Trump in this moment.”

For Mr. Cruz, of course, there is also their history. Many Republicans said things they wish voters would now forget in the time between Mr. Trump’s debut as a presumed sideshow candidate and his tenure as the nation’s 45th president.

But few could match Mr. Cruz — known on the campaign trail for his hammy imitations and extended stabs at comedy — in the raw showmanship of the reversal.

Just before dropping out in 2016, he appraised Mr. Trump as a “pathological liar” and “serial philanderer” of boundless narcissism and no moral compass. While Mr. Cruz has not dwelled on these assessments, he has not taken anything back, either.

Before his convention speech in Cleveland, Republicans had hoped that Mr. Cruz, by far Mr. Trump’s most formidable primary opponent, would project party unity by expressing his unqualified support. The senator left the stage instead to ferocious boos after advising delegates to “vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom” — without explicitly placing Mr. Trump among them.

Mr. Cruz has moved to present this decision as a function of policy aims, saying his purpose was merely “to help move the president in a more conservative direction” by outlining an agenda he hoped the nominee would embrace and leaving himself space to reward Mr. Trump with an endorsement if he did.

“I do think there were some who misunderstood what the speech was saying,” Mr. Cruz said, “and in particular some in the Trump campaign who chose to misinterpret it.”

This accounting is somewhat incomplete. In his own telling at the time, Mr. Cruz’s rationale was rooted at least partly in Mr. Trump’s merciless, meritless attacks on his family. These included a baseless insinuation that Mr. Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination and an ominous threat to “spill the beans” about the senator’s wife.

At a breakfast reception with Texas delegates the morning after his speech, Mr. Cruz strained to explain himself as taunts rained down, a “Clinton-Cruz 2020” sign waving in front of him.

He said his position was a matter of “principles and ideals.” He said politics was about more than “red jerseys and blue jerseys.” He would not, he said, be a “servile puppy dog,” no matter how many Republicans demanded he come to heel.

“I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father,” Mr. Cruz said.

He would acquire the habit. Within months, as advisers assessed the damage that his dramatic prime-time flourish had done to his political standing two years before his own Senate re-election, Mr. Cruz rediscovered his red jersey.

He has said his endorsement was the direct result of Mr. Trump’s commitment to name a Supreme Court justice from a public list of prospective nominees. Mr. Cruz continues to cite conservative judicial appointments under Mr. Trump as a seminal Republican triumph.

On three occasions in the interview, Mr. Cruz used the phrase “hand in hand” to describe his policy partnership with the president. Mr. Trump’s allies have mostly described Mr. Cruz as a faithful collaborator.

“He made a course correction,” said Mica Mosbacher, a 2016 Cruz fund-raiser who sits on the Women for Trump 2020 advisory board, noting Mr. Cruz’s reliance on the president in his narrow Senate victory over Beto O’Rourke two years ago.

Yet Mr. Cruz himself can sound at times like he misses the campaign fray a bit. For most of the last eight years — his first Senate win in 2012, the near-instant presidential plotting that followed, the 2016 run, his high-profile midterm race — he has found himself at or near the heart of the national political conversation.

He has called his first White House bid “the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” which rings true to those who saw it up close. This was a candidacy that could resemble a kind of gleeful playacting of a candidacy, with grand gestures — the selection of a running mate, Carly Fiorina, six days before dropping out; an ill-fated live-action skit borrowed from the movie “Hoosiers” in Indiana — and self-conscious turns that felt culled from an Aaron Sorkin script. (“Donald, you’re a sniveling coward,” Mr. Cruz once thundered for the cameras, after the future president insulted his wife, “and leave Heidi the hell alone.”)

Any retrospective of his run is also a disorienting reminder of how much time has passed. Four years is an eternity in politics, doubly so in the Trump age.

Mr. Cruz’s most prominent early-state endorser last time was Representative Steve King of Iowa, whose long trail of racist remarks finally prompted congressional Republicans to discipline him last year. The senator announced his campaign at Liberty University, the evangelical institution whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., just left in scandal.

Some in Mr. Cruz’s orbit are mindful that second-time candidates, particularly self-styled insurgents like him, do not always recapture whatever spark they once had.

In the interim, he is subsisting across his non-electoral platforms, suggesting that maintaining a national presence is largely a matter of principled altruism.

“Both the podcast and the book I have coming out this fall are different means of defending our constitutional liberties,” he said.

It is not the presidency. But it is where voters can find him, if they catch themselves missing him this week, when no one speaks quite so memorably about conscience.

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