Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump will rally supporters against the Iran nuclear deal outside the Capitol Building on Wednesday, the most dramatic example yet of Cruz’s ongoing strategy of lavishing praise and approval on Trump.
Presidential rivals often appear at the same events, but what’s unusual about the Wednesday rally is that Cruz explicitly invited Trump to share the stage with him. The rally is co-sponsored by the Tea Party Patriots, the Center for Security Politics, and the Zionist Organization of America. The latter group is closely tied to hawkish Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who is uncommitted in the Republican primaries this year after spending $20 million on Newt Gingrich’s 2012 run.
Candidates have taken different tacks in dealing with Trump since he surged to the front of the pack over two months ago. Scott Walker has taken to imitating him with confrontational statements on immigration, crime, and China. Jeb Bush is aggressively criticizing him. Only Cruz, however, has embarked on an all-out campaign to win Trump over with constant displays of affection. He met with Trump in July at Trump Tower and has consistently praised him in interviews for firing up conservatives up over illegal immigration. When Trump got into a nasty feud with Fox News host Megyn Kelly, Cruz went on her show and derided her “mainstream media liberal journalist” questions about deportation.
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Trump is known for mercilessly lashing out at rivals who criticize him, but he’s also indicated to reporters that he tries to hold his tongue against candidates who treat him with kindness. So far, this has included Cruz and the surging Ben Carson, who has largely stayed out of his way. He’s even thrown some praise his way, commending Cruz’s efforts to defund the Affordable Care Act.
“Senator Cruz has been so nice to me, I can’t hit him,” Trump said at a South Carolina event last month. “I may have to if he starts getting like really close.”
Cruz has couched his own nice words for Trump behind a broader refusal to engage in “Republican-on-Republican violence,” an angle that might raise eyebrows among his fellow Republican lawmakers given that he’s spent much of his time in Congress stoking intraparty warfare. In July, he sparked a backlash after labeling Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a liar in a speech on the Senate floor. For someone deeply concerned about GOP divisions, Cruz is also surprisingly comfortable hugging the candidate who has leveled by far the most vicious attacks of anyone in the race.
The potential upside for Cruz seems clear enough. By tying himself to Trump he can potentially make a play for his supporters if the candidate drops out and maybe even score an endorsement. A confrontation with Trump could also get into ugly territory fast: Trump briefly topped GOP polls in 2011 by promoting the “birther” conspiracy theory that falsely alleged President Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible for the presidency. While legal experts believe children of American citizen parents are eligible for the presidency, Trump indicated earlier this year that his “birther” concerns apply to Cruz as well, who was born in Canada.
“It is my hope that the voters who are currently supporting Donald trump and every other one of the Republican candidates in time will come to support us,” Cruz told reporters at last month’s RedState Gathering. “What I am hoping to do is unite conservatives.”
Trump has largely been uninterested in the relevant foreign policy, but his appearance on Wednesday adds star power and gives Cruz a chance to make a pitch to voters currently in Trump’s camp. Last week, Trump clashed with radio host Hugh Hewitt after he mixed up Iran’s Quds Force and the region’s Kurdish minority on his show and said he saw little value in learning about the major players in the region. While both oppose the Iran nuclear deal, they also have very different prescriptions for it should they win the presidency. Cruz has said he would renounce the agreement on his first day as president, Trump has instead promised to vigorously enforce it. As of Tuesday, the White House appears to have the Democratic votes to institute the deal, so how the next president plans to implement the agreement (or not) is a major question for the Republican aspirants.
The downside of Cruz’s strategy is that it relies on Trump collapsing in the polls and Trump has so far proved immune to the normal rules of political gravity. At some point Cruz, who has raised more money than any candidate except Bush and is courting the same anti-establishment voters, may need to go on offense or risk becoming a footnote to the Trump phenomenon.