Cruz is pushing back against the Trump argument that the party is the “Republican Party,” not the “Conservative Party,” and that in essence the GOP stands for whatever Trump wants it to. Trump’s view has not been the understanding of the party whose nomination he sought. It has, since the modern conservative movement was founded, been the vessel for conservative policy and thought. What that entails, the specific policies required at a moment, may vary, but Cruz is right: Republicans do believe that their party stands for something beyond the whims of the current presumptive nominee.
The choice between a party that stands for whatever Trump decides, on one hand, or, on the other, a party that has ideological principles is at the heart of the divide between Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and, more broadly, between Trump and the larger conservative movement.
Trump is ideologically fickle and lacks consistent positions (beyond rounding up illegal immigrants, building the wall and starting a trade war with China), let alone large principles. The conservative movement therefore faces the first election in nearly four decades in which no conservative may appear on the ballot. What they do — stay home, throw their lot in with an unprincipled narcissist or get behind a third-party candidate — will have ramifications for the movement’s future. Conservatives such as Cruz, Ryan, Mitt Romney and others really do hold the cards. They are looking to the long-term health of the conservative movement, however conservatism is to be defined in the 21st century. If they hold together, resisting Trump’s entreaties to simply agree with what he proscribes on any given day, they’ll prevent the conservative movement’s destruction. Perhaps conservatism will find expression this election in a third candidate, or it may need to wait until 2020.
Cruz, after the presidential primary experience, would be wise to look at conservatism and conservatives more broadly — embodying people he has slammed as the “establishment,” as well as grass-roots activists. Cruz, it turned out, had more in common with Jeb Bush, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Romney (who have also rejected Trump and Trumpism) than he does with Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who are willing to follow Trump all over the political landscape and for whom character is irrelevant or even inconvenient. In the wake of his loss, stemming from refusal of the non-Trump voters to rally around him, Cruz has the opportunity to work for common ground with a much wider array of conservatives. He has identified jobs, freedom (defense of the Constitution, including religious liberty and 2nd Amendment rights) and security as his causes; surely he can find common ground on the right by championing widely embraced policies (e.g. school choice, regulatory reform, rebuilding the military). In doing so, he’ll fortify, rather than divide, the conservative movement and enhance his own reputation.
It is worth remembering that while a great number of conservatives did not want Trump, Cruz’s specific brand of conservatism and his tone held no lure for them either. If Cruz wants to preserve a conservative movement and lead it, he will also need to help it innovate. That’s the formula for the GOP’s survival and for his.