As Republicans decide whether to continue associating themselves with Donald Trump, or to abandon or even oppose his candidacy, as Meg Whitman did this week, they might reflect on the experience of Ted Cruz during the summer of 2015.
They are presently erring in just the same way.
Then as now, the Texas senator wanted to be seen by the public as a man of principle. Yet when he declined to criticize Trump’s bad behavior, he didn’t defend his rival on the merits or cite a principled reason for holding his tongue. Rather, he kept declaring that criticizing Donald Trump is just what the Washington establishment and the media wanted him to do, so he wasn’t going to do it.
The answer played well with the Republican base. That’ll show ‘em!
But if you think about Cruz’s formulation, it undermined the notion that he is a man of principle. In his telling, whether or not he would criticize Trump didn’t turn on a judgment about whether his rival’s actions merited criticism; in his telling, a major factor guiding him was the need to oppose whatever liberal elites wanted.
Outsourcing his judgment in this manner was doomed to fail.
Trump was always going to keep saying and doing things that transgressed against principles that Cruz held dear. Ultimately, the Texan could not escape this choice: abandon his principles, sacrificing his character and political future; or defend his principles, which required criticizing Trump, which liberal elites would like. The notion that he should refrain from doing anything liberals elites wanted proved self-destructive.