You can read his extended comments at his website. A Twitter pal tagged me this afternoon after Rush said this and claimed that he’d just endorsed Cruz; Redditors are interpreting it the same way. It does seem to follow logically that the biggest name in conservative talk radio, who’s been preaching Reagan conservatism to millions for 30 years, is dropping an endorsement when he calls a candidate the next best thing to Reagan himself. (Rush quasi-endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2008 primary in a similar way, complimenting him as the only Republican candidate who represented all three legs of the conservative stool.) But I assume Rush himself will deny that tomorrow, partly because he doesn’t formally endorse candidates in primaries and partly because of the noteworthy caveat he drops here:
They were going left as fast as Deion Sanders can backpedal. They were moving left faster than anybody I’ve ever seen go left. And I opened the program yesterday saying, “You will never, ever have to worry about that with Ted Cruz.” And then I expanded on it. And let me say one thing: If conservatism is your bag, if conservatism is the dominating factor in how you vote, there is no other choice for you in this campaign than Ted Cruz, because you are exactly right: This is the closest in our lifetimes we have ever been to Ronald Reagan.
In terms of doctrinaire, understandable, articulated, implementable conservatism, there’s nobody closer. But I think the electorate at this point in time… We don’t know, Brian. If you look at Trump’s coalition, there’s a lot of assumptions being made about it, because he’s running as a Republican and in the Republican primary, and it’s assumed the Republican base is who’s voting here. Therefore, it’s assumed the majority of Trump’s coalition’s conservatives. And there are a lot.
But he’s broad. He’s all over the spectrum.
That’s the last eight months of Trumpmania and talk radio synthesized in one bit of audio. We’ve got the truest conservative candidate since Reagan in the race this year, which, one would think, would merit some sort of enthusiastic endorsement — but Rush puts the brakes on. Cruz is the candidate you should support if “conservatism is your bag.” At best, it’s a qualified endorsement. Hearing that on his show of all places, that you may want to consider this or that if you’re into conservatism, is like hearing someone on the NFL Network say you may want to consider this or that if you’re into football. On the one hand, he’s simply recognizing reality: As he himself recently said, for some people (although not for him) “nationalism and populism have overtaken conservatism in terms of appeal.” True enough. For those people, Trump’s the guy. On the other hand, Cruz is facing a primary in 10 days that may very well decide the fate of the Republican nomination. Given the stakes there, with South Carolina forced to choose between a true-blue disciple of Reagan and a populist who seems capable of smashing the Republican coalition, the vote on February 20th is arguably the most momentous night the conservative movement will have experienced since 1980. If talk radio, which has been preaching conservative populism since the Reagan era, wants to give Cruz a boost over the nationalist Trump, now would seem to be the time. The fact that the quasi-endorsement comes with a qualifier anyway — vote Cruz, if conservatism’s your thing — feels like a bad sign. Just one more reason why I think Trump’s a heavy favorite for the nomination.
Actually, there’s another significant element to this clip. Would Rush praise Cruz quite so effusively, implicitly elevating him over Rubio (and everyone else) in terms of his conservative credentials, if he thought Rubio was still a plausible nominee? Remember, Rush has had warm words for Rubio lately, defending him as a bona fide conservative despite attacks on Rubio from the right that he’s some establishment water carrier. If Rubio had finished a strong second last night, creating a three-way race with Trump and Cruz, Rush might have felt obliged to hedge on Cruz being Reagan’s true heir or even included Rubio in the praise. Some of this, I think, is him bowing to the reality that, at least for the moment, Cruz is the only game in town if you want to stop Trump before he’s unstoppable.