Take this recent exchange with NBC’s Hallie Jackson:
Jackson: At what point do you start to draw those distinctions with Donald Trump?Cruz: Listen, I like Donald Trump. I like Ben Carson, I like Marco Rubio — I like all the candidates running. They’re good people. I consider them friends of mine.Jackson: Even when they question why evangelicals don’t come from Cuba?Cruz: Oh, listen. Politicians behave a certain way when they’re panicking, and they engage in attacks; they engage in personal attacks. That’s human nature. I understand that. I’m not going to get drawn into that muck.
The media has been trying for a while now to draw Cruz into the muck -- or, at the very least, get him to articulate meaningful differences between himself and Trump. It hasn’t worked very well.
Probably the most successful attempt came during the most recent Republican debate, when conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, serving as a panelist, asked Cruz to explain, “with the kind of specificity and responsiveness you delivered in your nine Supreme Court arguments, how you disagree with Mr. Trump” on banning Muslims from entering the United States. Even then, Cruz began his answer with a compliment (“everyone understands why Donald has suggested what he has”) and required a follow-up question from Hewitt before finally saying something very un-Trump-like: “It’s not a war on a faith.”
One of the problems for the media here is that it is very difficult to push hard on how-are-you-different-from-Trump questions without appearing to want what Cruz would call a “cage match.” The goal might be a substantive debate, but it can look like trying to goad Cruz into a fight for which he is determined not to answer the bell.
Journalists will undoubtedly keep trying — and they should, because elections are about contrasts and choices — but Cruz is wise to resist. His long-term play is that Republican primary voters will eventually be turned off by Trump’s abrasiveness -- or, if not, they'll conclude that the GOP needs an alternative candidate whose demeanor gives the party a better shot to win a general election against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
At an early-December fundraiser, where his remarks were recorded, Cruz told donors that “my approach, much to the frustration of the media, has been to bear hug [Trump and Carson] and smother them with love.” Cruz added that be believes voters will ultimately ponder, “Who am I comfortable having their finger on the button?” He suggested that the brash, impulsive Trump lacks the “judgment” to be commander-in-chief.
Carson has continued to fade since then, but Cruz keeps right on flattering Trump, with whom he agrees on many things — right down to the wall along the Mexican border. When Trump has attacked, calling Cruz a “maniac” and questioning his eligibility to be president, the senator has responded with humor on social media and in interviews.
By playing the role of Mr. Nice Guy in the news media — refusing to engage with reporters looking for the Cruz-Trump fight — the tea party icon is staking out two positions at the same time: He’s the candidate who offers much of the Trump policy conservatives love and none of Trump personality they fear will doom them in November.
Whether Cruz can or will continue this tack with the media, we shall see.