On the third night of the Republican convention, Ted Cruz did the impossible. He replaced Hillary Clinton as the most reviled person in the room.
And the strangest thing, in this strangest of times, is that Cruz did it all by design.
Cruz is used to being reviled, of course. He has made a Senate career of being the most unpopular man in town. You could say that he ran for president on the basis that, as Nixon once proved, popularity is overrated. But this was different.
He walked into Trump’s house, on the night before Trump would accept the GOP nomination, to give a prime-time speech in which he would pointedly refuse to do the expected, which was to endorse the Republican nominee. He guaranteed that the story of the day would be of a fractured Republican Party in desperate need of healing.
In the end, the crowd, which had warmly welcomed Cruz, essentially booed him off the stage, which is what Cruz must have wanted. This was Cruz making an enormous and very public gamble on the notion that Trump will get clobbered come November and the hope that Republicans will remember that he was the one who refused to go along.
On the other hand, Trump could win. Yes, he actually could win. Or, maybe more likely, he could lose and Cruz could be remembered as the calculating politician who helped bring the house down on the party’s collective head.
Did Cruz do the honorable thing, as some in the anti-Trump camp suggest? Or did he, as one CNN commentator delicately put it, come to dinner and piss on the rug? And what effect, if any, will it have on Trump’s attempt to unify the party?
So many questions and only one speech left that matters to answer them — tonight’s acceptance speech from Trump himself.
The question all day had been whether Cruz and Trump, two guys who just plain don’t like each other, had reached some kind of detente. It just didn’t figure that Trump, the alleged master negotiator, would allow Cruz his big convention moment without the promise of at least a lukewarm endorsement. Scott Walker had done it, if boringly. Marco Rubio had done it, by video and very briefly, keeping his hands very much to himself.
And Cruz? Well, the Trump people had apparently seen the speech before Cruz delivered it, but reading it couldn’t have prepared them for how it would play out. It would be bad, but maybe not so bad. Cruz was rolling for most of his 21-minute performance, making a strong case for the conservative movement and, of course, for himself. And then, finally, Cruz seemed to be building toward a carefully-plotted call for something like unity.
“Don’t stay home in November,” he said, as if the audience had seriously considered it. “Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.”
By the time Cruz finished the word “conscience,” the crowd was already chanting “Endorse Trump,” realizing that Cruz wasn’t about to include Trump among his freedom-defending, Constitution-embracing stalwarts. At that point, Trump entered the hall, guaranteeing that the cameras would move away from Cruz and toward the Trump box. This was gamesmanship being played out at the highest levels. The crowd grew louder, boos and cheers mixed, and suddenly a bad case of chaos had broken out.
Few could remember seeing anything like it, at least not since Rockefeller was booed off the stage at the Goldwater convention back in 1964. Here was Cruz upstaging the vice-presidential nominee, Mike Pence, the night’s featured speaker, when we had assumed the only person allowed to do that was The Donald himself. (In case you missed it, just as Pence was praising Trump as someone who would never desert our allies, The New York Times was publishing a Trump interview in which he said he might not honor the longstanding U.S. commitment to defend NATO countries.)
Up to that point, the convention had been only a minor disaster. There was the three-day plagiarism story, which didn’t end until the Trump campaign finally threw the writer under the bus. There was the brief Colorado-led walk-out. There was the Rudy Giuliani paean to Pat Buchanan. There was the constant, convention-dominating chant of “lock her up,” which doesn’t exactly befit the democratic ideal. There was the absence of Republican star power, the absence of discussion of Trump’s signature issues, the absence of any real attempt to humanize Trump.
In fact, the story of the convention, aside from the Hillary hating and the Trump family values, was how much of the support for Trump from the Republican establishment had seemed so grudging. But Trump would have gladly settled for grudging from Cruz.
So why did Cruz refuse to endorse Trump? There’s no mystery here. In fact, there is a long list of possible motives.
You could guess it was a matter of vengeance — for the Lyin’ Ted branding, for Trump’s bizarre suggestion that Cruz’s father was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination, for the Twitter attack on Cruz’s wife.
Or it could have been that Cruz is genuinely concerned about Trump’s lack of commitment to conservative causes. Of course, that would be the same Cruz who made a great show of buddying up to Trump for much of the primary season, reasoning that Trump would eventually implode and his audience would embrace Cruz.
My guess is that it was simply a matter of Cruz being Cruz, which Cruz, against all odds, continues to believe is a good thing and one that will eventually lead him to the White House.
Tonight, meanwhile, Trump will take his turn at being Trump. Whatever else happened at the convention, it was always going to end that way. And the question remains — just as it was before the three days of hello-Cleveland stumbles began — whether that will be enough.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr