I’m sending this one out with a long-distance dedication to all the readers who cheered Cruz’s floor speech back in July savaging Mitch McConnell and the Republican caucus for cronyism. If I told you then that, six months later, the Republican frontrunner would be calling Cruz a “whack job” a week before Iowa, to a man you would have said, “JEB BUSH IS THE FRONTRUNNER IN IOWA?”

Which, actually, would have been unfair to Jeb. Even the establishment’s favorite son would have avoided a term like “whack job” for Cruz, partly because it’s overly nasty and dismissive and partly because even the McConnellites don’t see Cruz that way. The rap on Cruz, a la Marco Rubio, is that he’s cunning and cynically self-interested, willing to let the government shut down if it gives him some material for a campaign commercial in the south. It’s not that he’s unhinged. Either Trump doesn’t understand the supposed problem with Cruz or, ever the salesman, he thinks “whack job” is a better pitch to Iowa’s undecideds. But let me say something sort of nice about Trump here: If you follow conservative media at all, especially talk radio, and you know how much cover Trump has received from populist outlets as a legitimate voice of grassroots conservative anger at Washington, it’s endlessly amusing to see him suddenly go ultra-establishment in attacking Cruz. Cruz deserves plenty of blame too, of course — until three weeks ago, he was the biggest populist Trump enabler of all. But Cruz has no choice except to attack now. If you’re a commentator who praised Cruz to the heavens for standing up to McConnell and later treated Trump as though he was some sort of avenging angel against Beltway Republicans, what do you do now that Trump is hitting Cruz for being too mean to poor Mitch and company? Trump played the whole thing beautifully.

“I think the establishment actually is against me but really coming on line because they see me as opposed to Cruz, who is a nasty guy who can’t get along with anybody,” Trump said in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday.

“Look, at a certain point, we got to make deals,” Trump continued. “We can’t have a guy who stands in the middle of the Senate floor and every other senator thinks he’s a whack job. You have to make deals, you have to get along, that’s the purpose of what our founders created, and Ted cannot get along with anybody. He’s a nasty person.”…

In recent weeks, Trump has been assailing Cruz for being an opposition figure who is incapable of working with his colleagues to get things done and making a pitch to the evangelical voters who have migrated into his rival’s camp.

It’s not true that all establishmentarians prefer Trump to Cruz — some still take conservatism seriously enough to prefer even an abrasive conservative to a nationalist with a strong-man complex — but it’s probably broadly true. That may even help explain Trump’s recent poll surge in Iowa. Cruz fans would have you believe that any sort of thumbs up from Washington for a candidate is pure poison among Iowa Republicans, but I don’t think that’s true in Trump’s case. One of Trump’s problems is people wondering if he’s too much of a loose cannon to be trusted with the presidency. Hearing John McCain and Orrin Hatch sound more concerned about Cruz than Trump is a strong vote of confidence in Trump’s reasonableness.

Speaking of Trump’s populist enablers, Leon Wolf listened to Rush Limbaugh’s show this afternoon and nearly fell off the chair when Rush said this:

“Rush: The umbrella fear is fear of government. Well who out there happens to be talking about the incompetence and incapability of government louder than anybody else is? That would be The Donald and.. and Cruz as well. But with The Donald it’s an identifying characteristic. He never even utters the words. A caller the other day said “I never hear Trump talk about big government.” He does all the time, he doesn’t use the words. He talks about liberals all the time, doesn’t use the words. He talks about conservatives all the time, doesn’t use the word. Exactly the advice Pat Buchanan was given back in 1996. “Go ahead, do everything, but do not call yourself a conservative, Pat, it will narrow your identity, you don’t need any help from any other constituency…” Pat couldn’t do it, he was so tied to the conservative movement, and the party, and he couldn’t do it. But Trump can since he’s never really been associated with either political party. It’s an open question. But everything Trump talks about – much of what he talks about is rooted in opposition, in one way or another, to things happening to people from government.”

This is sleight of hand. Rush is equating “big government” with “incompetent government” and then claiming that because Trump criticizes the latter he’s also criticizing the former. Not so. A dogmatic conservative like Cruz would equate the two on the theory that government, for many reasons, is necessarily inefficient and broadly incompetent and therefore it’s imperative to reduce the size of it. A smaller government is a less dangerous government. To Trump, if you want a less dangerous government, your only option is a Trump-led government. Inefficiency and incompetence in government is a matter of personnel, not of incentives associated with collective action. I’d bet cash money that Trump would prefer that a Trump-led government be as big as possible, in fact, so that it can “make America great again” more expeditiously. That’s why you never catch him complaining about “big government.” But oh well. Rush’s reward for spinning for Trump here is watching this fake-conservative slam Cruz as a “whack job” for doing exactly the sort of thing Rush et al. have been celebrating Cruz for doing for the past three years. Enjoy caucus night, everyone.