A strange thing happened on the way to the Donald Trump vs. Ted Cruz showdown that the CNN panelist wanted to provoke at last night’s debate. It didn’t happen. Instead, Trump praised Cruz and refused to engage. Trump is combative, but he is also very clever.
Until recently Trump and Cruz have been playing nice. This temporarily changed when Cruz was recorded making some disparaging remarks about Trump in what was supposed to be a private meeting. It is important to note that this was supposed to be private because it strikes me as standard operating procedure that a candidate might say something off the record at a private party that he wouldn’t say publicly. Is this duplicitous? Maybe, but it’s hardly surprising, and the point is that it wasn’t part of Cruz’s public strategy.
Trump then responded to Cruz’s criticism, as is his wont. I am a Trump supporter, but I cringed a bit when he criticized Cruz because his criticism echoed centrist and liberal criticisms of Cruz. (It’s likely technically correct that you don’t “get things done that way,” but that assumes Cruz’s primary motivation was to get things done, rather than distinguish himself as the loyal opposition.) Trump has a tendency to talk off the top of his head, but he is quite clever in hindsight, and I highly suspect he is surrounded by some advisors who have their ears to the ground and let him know when he missteps. Trump wasn't wrong to criticize Cruz per se, because he has established a useful precedent of always fighting back strongly when criticized, but his refusal to take the bait in the debate last night and criticize Cruz was very wise.
Cruz and Marco Rubio are locked in a battle to see who is going to be the last standing not-Trump candidate, but unfortunately for the GOP Establishment, Cruz is not their guy either. If Cruz falls to Rubio, I suspect that a large percentage of his supporters will be inclined to go to Trump, so it is in Trump's best interests not to antagonize Cruz's supporters, especially by echoing Establishment criticisms.
This is part of a pattern I have observed with Trump. For example, when the issues of Syrian refugees first arose, Trump indicated a willingness for the U.S. to take in some of the refugees. People in my part of the internet and social media paleoshere went nuts, but I told them all to take a few deep breaths and relax because he was sure to walk the comment back. Sure enough, he quickly stepped back his position. Why was I able to say this with such certainty? Because Trump’s team clearly follows social media and internet chatter and would recognize that that comment was not sitting well with his supporters.
It is important to remember that Trump, while a man of strong and long publicly expressed political opinions, is not an ideologue, and what opinions he has expressed have generally been around his economic nationalist themes. While he has moved in the political sphere, he is not a long time denizen of the “official” conservative milieu. It is therefore not surprising that he missteps because he hasn’t necessarily internalized all the sensibilities of his new base.
However, what should be reassuring to anti-Establishment conservatives who have been hesitant to trust Trump, is that he is either quite adept at this game already and/or is surrounded by advisors who get it. Viewed from afar, it appears to me that the Trump and Cruz campaigns are playing Chess, and the rest of the candidates are playing Checkers.