Throughout the fall, campaign watchers have noticed how Senator Cruz has refrained from criticizing Donald Trump. They've attributed this to some combination of cowardice and opportunism, the presumption being that Cruz wants Trump's supporters should Trump finally flop, and so doesn't want to alienate them by criticizing their current idol, even as other self-styled conservatives chide Trump for inappropriate proposals or rhetoric. The one fissure in Cruz's cool facade has been the emergence of a recording from a private meeting in which Cruz, still in modest terms, questioned Trump's judgment. Once this became public, and once the front-runner noticed Cruz rising in the Iowa polls, Trump began to respond in kind and in character. What's more interesting is the reaction to Trump's reaction. Three popular and influential radio talkers -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin -- chastised Trump for speaking ill of Cruz. To criticize Cruz, all insinuated, was to throw one's conservative credentials into question. To me, these outbursts made clear that Cruz is the opinionators's chosen one for the 2016 primary campaign. The uncompromising manner in the Senate that caused Trump to call him "kind of a maniac" is exactly what the radio talkers and their fans admire about Cruz. To their minds, probably, it is a more principled version of exactly what Trump has done on the campaign trail. So long as Cruz was thought not to have criticized Trump, Trump had largely left Cruz alone, and during that time, as far as I know, these talkers had little to say against Trump, either.
What message does their sudden, sharp defense of Cruz send to Trump and the Republicans in general? I don't think they're ready yet to endorse Cruz over Trump in the primaries, in part because they remain unsure about how popular Trump is among their own listeners and whether criticizing Trump too much might cost them in the ratings. Instead, I suspect that they need to assert themselves now to put a little scare into Trump to keep their own endgame viable, and I suspect that their endgame is a Trump-Cruz ticket this summer. Nothing else explains Cruz's own reticence so perfectly. The Texan hasn't exactly observed Reagan's Eleventh Commandment in his dealings with fellow Republicans in Congress, so his handling of Trump with kid gloves, up to this point -- the next primary debate is tonight -- requires a different explanation. A Trump-Cruz ticket would seem the ideal reconciliation of the party's populist and ideological factions after a long campaign that has differentiated if not polarized them to an extent that throws their ultimate compatibility into question. We've reached a point where some conservatives are starting to resent Trump becoming their symbol. Jonah Goldberg, for instance, hates that Trump's faults are seen as conservative failings, and makes the point that self-described conservative Republicans favor Cruz over Trump, while Trump's supporters supposedly are more likely to describe themselves as "moderate" or "liberal." Whatever happens in the Republican party, the conservative movement wants some proof of fealty from Trump, while he probably prefers to think of himself as unbeholden to anyone in the party or opinion establishment. Accepting Cruz as his running mate is probably the most they can hope for from Trump, but they may see it as an or-else proposition. Obviously it isn't one they can force on Trump now, but rallying behind Cruz now may strengthen their hand later, if it doesn't succeed beyond their wildest dreams by provoking Trump to self-destruct by alienating the conservative base. The crucial question is whether the conservative base and Trump's base are one and the same or whether Trump's base as some observers believe or fear, is a new thing whose strength has not yet been truly measured by Republicans or anyone else.