Canny Cruz Plays Trump Like a Fiddle

Canny Cruz Plays Trump Like a Fiddle

REUTERS/Tami Chappell

Ted Cruz is one smart cookie. Everyone says so (Alan Dershowitz calls him “off-the-charts brilliant”). But now we know so – look how he’s playing Donald Trump.

Alone among the GOP contenders, Cruz has chosen to climb aboard Trump’s bandwagon, rather than bash the blowhard billionaire. Recently, Cruz invited Trump to speak at a rally protesting the Iran nuke deal in Washington -- effectively guaranteeing a capacity crowd and plenty of news coverage.

Trump, who loves to be loved, confirmed, “We are talking to Ted Cruz--who is a friend of mine and a good guy--about doing something very big over the next two weeks in Washington….” 

Related: Trump Is Still Surging: Here’s Who Can Stop Him​​

Just like that, the Texas Senator’s demonstration against the Iran agreement became “very big.” And Trump followers are on notice that Cruz is a stand-up guy. That separates Trump from nearly every other Republican contender--rivals Trump has variously described as stupid or worse. For Cruz, the praise is bankable, and it may well come in handy. 

Notwithstanding his astonishing surge, few political junkies imagine that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee, much less president. (Even with his recent polling spurt, Paddy Powers, Ireland’s largest bookie, puts the odds of Trump carrying the GOP banner at 7/2, still behind Jeb Bush at 13/8.) Trump is widely considered unlikeable (the words used most often to describe him are “arrogant,” “blowhard and “idiot,” according to one survey), his temperament too combustible, his ego too big.

On the other hand, it’s unclear what will make Trump go away. It likely won’t be a lack of funds, the most common kill-switch for campaigns. Trump has trumpeted his wealth frequently and happily, and suggests he’ll spend “whatever it takes,” up to a billion dollars if need be, on his run for the White House.

Not that he has committed much of his nest egg until now. He hasn’t needed to, starting with near-total name recognition, a huge plus compared to other contestants. And, he gets enormous free media exposure; he can phone in to any TV or radio station in the country and immediately go on air. Why? Because he is a ratings magnet.

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Money won’t be the issue that brings The Donald down. The best bet is he finally says something that is so offensive, so politically unpalatable, that even his most ardent admirers cannot let it pass. Like water in a stagnant pond, Trump’s speech is unfiltered and often rancid. Just as hardy Democrats are struggling to choke down yet another lump of Clinton corruption, Republicans at some point may gag over one more Trump atrocity.

His repugnant attacks on Senator John McCain (especially offensive coming from someone who has never served in our armed forces), and his repeated insults of Megyn Kelly and nearly everyone else on the globe have not undermined his support, but they have created doubts – doubts about personality and character.   

Trump has consistently been underwater in terms of how voters view him. Only among Iowa caucus-goers has Trump received net positive ratings. Nation-wide surveys this month by various polling groups show that Trump’s “unfavorable” ratings top his “favorable” margin by 14 to 27 percentage points. That’s not good. By comparison, Hillary Clinton’s worst reading was an unfavorable deficit of 12 points. As a footnote and despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, Hispanics’ negative views of Trump top positives by 51 points – by far the worst in the GOP field.

In the event that Trump falters, Cruz is standing by. Among the 17 Republicans running for president, he is the likely understudy. Cruz made his name as the enfant terrible in Congress, defying age-old Senate traditions and protocols, staging filibusters and orchestrating the government shutdown in 2013 in a vain effort to defund Obamacare. He has delighted in fighting the GOP leadership at every turn, echoing Trump’s disdain for The Establishment. He also shares Trump’s proclivity for attention-getting positions, like vowing to abolish the IRS. 

Related: Ted Cruz -- 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Him

Meanwhile, Cruz’ support of Trump is paying off. After getting an initial boost from his March entry into the race, Cruz’ standing drooped through the summer. In early July, he earned only 4 percent of the vote, putting him 8th in the field. Then, when the chattering class clobbered Trump for describing Mexican immigrants as rapists, Cruz “saluted” The Donald for “focusing on the need to address illegal immigration.”  He also avoided criticizing Trump for bashing Senator John McCain, refusing to engage in what he calls “Republican-on-Republican violence.” 

Cruz’ standing started to rise. In the most recent Iowa poll, Trump and retired surgeon Ben Carson are tied for the lead, each with 23 percent of the vote. Carly Fiorina comes next, with 10 percent, followed closely by Cruz with 9 percent. Nationally, Cruz has recently recovered lost ground, pulling behind Trump. At 7.3 percent of the vote, he lies fourth behind Trump, Carson and Bush.

Meanwhile, Trump, who in 2014 donated $5,000 to Cruz’ campaign coffers, calls the Texas senator a “terrific guy,” which is about as specific as he gets. What does Trump get out of the relationship? Love, for which the billionaire seems especially needy. He has even paid his friend the ultimate compliment, tweeting about a possible Trump-Cruz ticket. Note to Trump: watch your back. Cruz may have a better idea, and he’s much, much smarter than you are.