Texas Sen. Ted Cruz went “all in” Wednesday as he addressed the Republican Convention delegates in Cleveland, laid out his vision and pointedly ignored the opportunity to endorse the candidacy of Donald Trump. It was a risky move and may not work out as well for the ambitious Texan as he hopes. He and his team have been striving to copy the strategy that allowed Ronald Reagan to leave the 1976 Kansas City Republican Convention a Republican and conservative winner among delegates who voted for his rival, but gave their hearts to the Gipper.
Mr. Cruz’s problem as he leaves Cleveland is that this is 2016 and he for all his talent isn’t Ronald Reagan. Both Mr. Cruz and Mr. Reagan attempted to convince their respective conventions to adopt rules that would allow the delegates to “vote their conscience” rather than requiring them to abide by the wishes of those who sent them, Both knew going in that their opponent had the votes to win, but believed that if they could be unbound, many of them might vote for them. Neither succeeded, but for very different reasons.
In 1976, the Reagan forces knew that incumbent President Gerald Ford had a majority of the delegates, but they knew too that Ronald Reagan was the first choice of many who would have to vote for the president, and that given the chance they would nominate Mr. Reagan. They almost pulled it off, but Mr. Ford was the president at the time and his forces used the power that went with his incumbency to narrowly win the crucial rules fight that year. Mr. Cruz faced a very different gaggle of delegates this year. Some were with him and his campaign had managed to round up more who might break if he could win a similar rules fight, but he was depending not on the affection that motivated the delegates in 1976 who wanted Ronald Reagan, but on the belief that many bound to Mr. Trump were uncomfortable with the candidate and might switch for that reason.
It didn’t happen because it was impossible to detect a real yearning for Mr. Cruz and because by the time he spoke on Wednesday evening the misgivings about Mr. Trump seemed to be evaporating by the hour. His speech when it came was a sound conservative exposition of what the delegates want from a Republican president, but others had been saying the same thing for three days and in contrast to the speech delivered by Mr. Reagan years before it seemed more like a list of talking points than something that would be remembered as the highlight of the convention. Mr. Cruz’s speech was workmanlike, but his words lacked the poetry and emotive force of Mr. Reagan.
The former California governor left Kansas City in 1976 with an option on his party’s nomination in 1980 that led him to the White House. Mr. Ford lost that fall, but no one was able to blame Mr. Reagan and he went on to serve as one of the most revered and successful presidents of the 20th century. Mr. Cruz will leave Cleveland weaker than when he arrived and may find it difficult to recover unless Mr. Trump loses in November in a landslide.
If that doesn’t happen; if he loses a close race and Republicans put a part of the blame on the Texan, he will have been mortally wounded and if Mr., Trump wins, the Texas senator will be viewed as a man whose ambition clouded his political judgment.
If Mr. Cruz believes or perhaps even hopes Mr. Trump will lose to give him a better shot at the nomination in four years, he may discover too late that he has been following the wrong model. In 1964 Richard Nixon firmly believed that under the circumstances that prevailed that year there was no way Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater could possibly defeat President Lyndon Johnson and may indeed have been convinced the election would end as it did in a Johnson landslide. His strategy was not to join those who didn’t like Mr. Goldwater or his policies, but to campaign for the man day and night until the votes were counted. Richard Nixon that year spent more time campaigning for Mr. Goldwater than anyone not because he thought the Arizonan was going to win or even because he liked him all that much, but because he knew that most of delegates who nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 would be back in 1968 and would be willing to vote for the candidate who had been there for Barry when others headed for the tall grass.
Mr. Nixon knew his fellow Republicans would never swoon over him, but he knew too that he could earn their support and that knowledge allowed him to resurrect a career and win the White House. They never loved him the way they would love Ronald Reagan, but hard work and loyalty pays off. That’s something Mr. Cruz would do well to contemplate.
• David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.
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