Ted Cruz is still playing the Trump card, but it might be time for a new hand.
The Texas senator was virtually the only Republican presidential contender this weekend to hold his fire against fellow White House hopeful Donald Trump for belittling the military record of Arizona Sen. John McCain -- a former prisoner of war who now chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee (which Cruz also sits on). But while it’s not the first time Cruz has stood by Trump through controversy -- presumably in hopes of securing the same segment of Republican base voters now cheering the real estate mogul’s anti-establishment streak -- this particular display of loyalty has some wondering if the 44-year-old rising GOP star has more to lose than gain with this strategy.
“Trump is hurting Cruz,” Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, a former Capitol Hill and Bush administration aide, told msnbc. “It’s not simply a matter of is he really going to resist ever criticizing Trump. The question is, when does it reach a political cost [Cruz] is not willing to pay?”
Speaking at the Family Leadership Summit Saturday in Ames, Iowa, Trump questioned whether McCain was a war hero and said he “like[d] people that weren’t captured.” He has since tried to clarify those remarks, accusing the media of misquoting him.
“The next sentence was, ‘he is a war hero,’” Trump said Monday in a phone interview on "TODAY." “I said that, but they never want to play it and you don’t want to play it.”
The comments, however, had already drawn widespread condemnation from both veterans groups, and Republican presidential candidates -- including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who said in a statement that Trump was “unfit to be Commander-in-Chief” and that he should “withdraw from the race.”
But notably absent from the pile-on was Cruz, who championed McCain as an “American hero,” while simultaneously refusing to speak ill of Trump.
"You know I recognize that folks in the press love to see Republican-on-Republican violence, and so you want me to say something bad about Donald Trump, or bad about John McCain or bad about anyone else," Trump told reporters Saturday. "I'm not going to do it."
Cruz has avoided ganging up on Trump before. Earlier this summer, Cruz stood out from the crowded presidential pack by refusing to condemn Trump’s incendiary remarks on immigration -- specifically that “when Mexico sends its people,” it sends rapists, drugs, and crime. The two candidates met privately in New York last week, and Cruz told reporters beforehand that he was “a big fan of Donald Trump’s” because he was “bringing a bold, brash voice to this presidential race.”
Undoubtedly, it’s not just a political bromance that Cruz is after; it’s votes.
“That’s why you see [Cruz] being very quiet. He’s swimming in the same pool of water that Mr. Trump is,” Bill Whalen, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, told msnbc. “There are a lot of voters who are frustrated with politicians, frustrated with Washington, and frustrated with Republican candidates.”
But in addition to campaigning on his anti-establishment cred, Cruz is also fashioning himself as one of the more hawkish candidates in the field. And standing behind someone who insults POWs could potentially alienate crucial allies in the military community, as well as weaken Cruz’s credibility more broadly on national security, foreign policy, and veterans issues.
“You can’t win a Democrat nomination if you’re on the wrong side of teachers unions, and you can’t win the Republican nomination if you’re on the wrong side of the military. I think we all recognize that,” conservative radio host Steve Deace said Monday on msnbc's "NewsNation." “The question of the moment is, are there enough people that are angry at what the Republican party has done in betraying virtually every single conservative principle to give Obama whatever he wants that they’re willing to give [Trump] another chance because he speaks to that?”
Whether Trump can redeem himself politically remains unclear. It’s also unclear as to whether Cruz will pay a price himself by appearing to take the high road on Trump, despite the fact that Cruz seems to have had no problem hurling insults at fellow Republicans in the past.
So far, veterans groups have largely kept their criticisms focused on "The Donald." Many of these organizations are nonpartisan and avoid commenting on political alliances. However, it is clear that these groups are looking for strong commitments to veterans issues from anyone who’s running for president.
“I can’t really comment on Sen. Cruz’s motivation for his refusal to at least make a supportive comment about our nation’s veterans and those still missing,” Ann Mills-Griffiths, head of the National League of POW/MIA Families, told msnbc. “It’s not a political question when it comes to standing behind those who serve our country.”
As for the Cruz-Trump pact, some of Cruz’s biggest supporters now recommend walking away -- while he still can.
“I’m a big Cruz fan, I consider him a friend, but personally I was a little disappointed here,” Mackowiak said. “I’m of the opinion that there’s the right way to handle a bully and a wrong way. The wrong way is to ignore him; the right way is to punch him in the face.”