There was a time—long, long ago—when the Republican Party was afraid of Donald Trump, but it truly loathed Ted Cruz.
They hated him. They couldn’t stand him. They might have thought Trump was a huckster, they might have thought he didn’t have any idea what he was doing, and they might have thought he was a bigot, but at least he wasn’t as insufferable as Ted Cruz, the man who had gone out of his way to wreck the party’s plans in Congress, and had called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar. Forced to choose, party elders tended to shudder and lean Trump. Lindsey Graham was particularly piquant in his criticism. He was very clear he didn’t like Cruz, who he said was no better than Trump and whom he accused of McCarthyism. He cracked, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”
A lot can change in a couple weeks. Graham made his joke about murdering Cruz way back on February 26, which makes it all the more surprising to hear from the South Carolina senator these days.
“I can work with Ted Cruz,” Graham said. “I know what I’m getting with Ted Cruz.”
That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it’s something. Graham may be the most prominent Republican coming around on Cruz, but he’s not the only one. One implication of the “#NeverTrump” movement is that anyone is more acceptable—especially Cruz, who is at least a Republican. On Tuesday night, on the eve of his state’s primary, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant announced his endorsement of Cruz. It’s telling that at this late stage in the campaign Cruz still hasn’t received the blessing of a single sitting member of the body in which he serves. The shift, however tentative and awkward and pained, by Republican officeholders toward Cruz is something to behold, nearly as surprising as Trump’s own collection of a few establishment backers.
It isn’t too hard to guess what’s driving people toward Cruz. The last two weeks have seen Trump’s bizarre flirtation with David Duke—first disavowing the former KKK leader’s backing, then refusing to do so, then implausibly blaming it all on a faulty earpiece. They have also seen the near disintegration of Marco Rubio's campaign. Many Republicans seemed convinced that any minute now, the big money was going to arrive to take out Trump, and Rubio was about to start soaring. The big money isn’t here yet—though we keep hearing it’s almost here—and Rubio has more or less run out of time for his big reveal. For months, his campaign effectively controlled expectations, saying they didn’t want him to peak too soon. But after a series of disappointing finishes, particularly on Super Tuesday and Super Saturday, even the true believers are losing hope.
For the first time, many Republicans seem to be realizing that they may in fact have to choose between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. In that case, with apologies to John Boehner, they may decide: better the “jackass” you know than the one you don’t.
How will this affect Cruz? He’s expressed delight at hatred from these party loyalists. He mentions it all the time. It’s just proof of his outsider bona fides. Recently, he’s been assailing Donald Trump for being a member of the establishment. Can he keep that up if he keeps winning plaudits from the likes of John McCain’s best friend? Or maybe it doesn’t matter at this point, and in a two-man fight against Trump it’s better to have as much firepower as possible, regardless of who’s manning the battle stations.
Or maybe gunfire is the wrong metaphor.
“If you nominate Trump and Cruz, I think you get the same outcome,” he said in January. “Whether it’s death by being shot or poisoning doesn’t really matter. I don’t think the outcome will be substantially different.” But if has to choose his method of execution, Graham seems to have decided poisoning doesn’t sound so bad.