Politicians rarely get sympathy from the public when they lose. Yet in no other line of work is so much put on the line, so publicly, for so long, with a portion of crow to be eaten cold every day. Then, in one instant, it’s over. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.
Still, it’s hard to feel sorry for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was forced to drop out of the presidential race after losing the Indiana Republican primary to Donald Trump on Tuesday. Cruz, after all, is the guy who was aptly described last week by John Boehner, the usually affable former speaker of the House, as “Lucifer in the flesh.” He’s a man who even his friends don’t like.
But earlier this week it was almost possible to have sympathy for the devil as Cruz, time running out, rattled by protesters, disappointed by crowds, upstaged by the conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck, and downsized by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, nonetheless crisscrossed the state.
Despite polls showing he would lose, Cruz gave Indiana his all after getting the one-on-one contest he insisted would allow him to take down Trump. At his last event before voting began, Cruz gave his full stemwinder — anyone who thinks Hillary Clinton yells hasn’t been to a Cruz speech — to an audience that filled about one-fifth of Exposition Hall at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
Beck had warmed up the crowd, but maybe a little too warmly, as some in the audience left when he was done. Singin’ Carly Fiorina came on next. In vain. Cruz’s premature decision to name her vice president, like his pact to keep Gov. John Kasich out of Indiana, didn’t help at all.
A few hours earlier, and a few miles north, Trump had filled the neo-classical Carmel Center for the Performing Arts, to the rafters. The line in the wealthy suburb of Carmel formed at dawn; hundreds didn’t get in, about 2,000 did.
Trump had his usual fun at another’s expense. He mocked Fiorina for falling off a stage in Lafayette a day earlier (“I would have helped her,” Trump sniffed). He performed a medley of his greatest hits: Hillary is still crooked and is playing, badly, the “woman’s card.” China is raping us. The Mexicans are going to be paying for a beautiful wall to keep themselves out.
But apart from a reference to the “choking dog,” his heart wasn’t into bashing Lyin’ Ted. He knew that Cruz would soon be just a bad memory.
Cruz tried everything to impress establishment conservatives in Indiana: He talked more about economics than abortion. He re-created a scene, badly, from the basketball classic “Hoosiers,” while Trump drafted many of the state’s sports legends from legendary coach Bobby Knight to Notre Dame’s Digger Phelps.
The Texas senator got Pence’s endorsement but it was so tepid that it brought to mind a hostage tape. In an interview Monday, Pence told CNN’s Dana Bash that he’d be just as happy if Trump got the nomination — with Cruz right beside him.
Toward the end of his long march through Indiana, Cruz had begun to borrow from the winner. He appropriated one of Trump’s signature themes, scolding Carrier, the air-conditioning manufacturer that is leaving Indiana for Mexico, and vowing to bring the jobs back by rewriting government regulations. Even Trump seemed stunned by the chutzpah: “ “Carrier’s my baby,” he said resentfully. “I want to do the number on Carrier.”
Cruz also one-upped him on Crooked Hillary by drawing the grim picture of her “tossing and turning in her jail cell.” He took a whack at the current first lady with her leafy vegetables, promising to restore French fries to school cafeterias once he does away with Obamacare.
Maybe he should have adopted a bit of Trump’s New York values. His hard-right views prevented him from getting a significant chunk of suburban Republicans in the doughnut counties around Indianapolis he claimed he would get once that pesky Kasich stood down.
What dominated on the last day of campaigning in Indiana — and, as it turned out, the final hours of the Cruz candidacy — wasn’t his speeches. Instead, it was an encounter that he didn’t have to have. With cameras rolling, Cruz crossed the street after an event to confront a dozen Trump supporters — some of whom also appeared to have high-level training in stand-up comedy. When Cruz said, “I will tell you this, sir, America is a better country,” his target was right back at him “Without you.” When Cruz said “And a question that everyone here should ask is .” another interjected, “Are you Canadian?”
This went on for an eternity, or maybe only five minutes. It was of a piece with going negative on a 10-year old for speaking up at an event. Cruz said he deserved a spanking like his kids would get. Suburban helicopter moms love that kind of talk. The exchange with the Trump supporters provided a vivid illustration of the reasons the conservatives Cruz was supposed to consolidate found him almost as unbearable as his colleagues: His utter conviction that he is smart and you are dumb, possessed of perfect debating skills and, above all, chosen by God to triumph over mere mortals.
In the end, even Cruz had to admit that it was over. And probably not a moment too soon. Republican delegates had begun to say they had always meant “Never Hillary” not “Never Trump,” and that trickle would have turned into a flood.
What an unhappy choice Republicans had to make. As much as the party wanted an alternative to Trump — preferring to be poisoned rather than shot — after a sustained look at Cruz they preferred the candidate with the highest negatives in history to the smug, sour, self-absorbed, dangerously ambitious senator. Still such an outright rejection must hurt. Even the devil has feelings.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.