COMMENTARY: You might have thought Ted Cruz was going out of business when he shut down the federal government and read Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor.
Or when he filed the paperwork to run for the Senate in the first place, taking on a sitting lieutenant governor, a big-city mayor and a former football star.
On Wednesday, it wasn’t what he did, but what he didn’t do: Cruz took the stage on the penultimate night of the Republican National Convention, congratulated Donald Trump for winning the nomination, talked about the direction of the party and his hopes for the country, told voters to be sure to show up in November and to vote their consciences, and said goodnight.
He didn’t say which candidates would get his vote and didn’t tell voters how to cast their own.
No love there for Trump, who at the end of the long and bizarre Republican primaries sideswiped Cruz, his most threatening challenger, by attacking his wife and his father.
On Wednesday, that bill came due for Trump, who risked giving his rival a microphone for the boost that would surely have accompanied a Cruz endorsement in a room where many delegates would have preferred the Texan over the New Yorker.
In the future, it might be trouble for Cruz. But who knows? Impossible things have become commonplace in this year’s primaries. Candidates have survived words and actions that would certainly have sunk them in previous years.
In his four years in elected office, Cruz has earned a reputation for bruising partisan contact, for ignoring the inclination toward compromise and fellowship that mark successful legislators.
Seen from the vantage point of his colleagues, he has played for himself. He is famously unpopular in the U.S. Senate.
After chewing up the congressional playbook for a couple of years, he turned his attention to presidential politics. In a crowded field of Republicans that included a closetful of governors and other senators, Cruz snuggled up to Trump as the businessman tore up the other candidates.
It was a good strategy until it left Cruz as the last apparent establishment candidate — a peculiar predicament for a senator who has staked his political brand on his standing as an anti-establishment hero. That positioning mistake undercut his credibility.
Cruz has already indicated his interest in another run for president in 2020, and on Wednesday, he put down his wager.
If he runs, voters will look back at this week as the start of the campaign, the night he gave the speech that broadly laid out his campaign themes and that took a look at the Democrat in the race and the Republican in the race and decided, in so many words, that he would be running in four years no matter which of them is the incumbent.
He’s playing for himself, once again. And part of the bet is that the voters who got him this far — the Texans who sent him to Washington and the Republican primary voters who kept him in the presidential race for so long — will stay with him.
It’s a big gamble. Those voters might admire his gumption, the nerve it took to take the stage at Trump’s big convention and to undermine the winner by denying him the victor’s spoils in the form of an endorsement.
Or they might just remember that he ditched his party to advance his own career, to win the headlines away from Trump and from Mike Pence, who was making his first big speech for a national electorate that doesn’t know him well.
It was supposed to be Pence’s night. Cruz spoiled that.
It was supposed to be the night — at least from Trump’s chair — when the strongest rival fell in line and joined the cause. Cruz spoiled that, too, with a speech that’ll be remembered as one of the fattest middle-finger salutes in American history.
He’s trying to forge a stronger, more unified party for the future by denying the Republicans’ bid for unity in 2016.
That’s a huge bet.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.