The GOP Convention, Night Three — Ted Cruz plays the spoiler

Tonight’s Republican convention was strong in the 10:00 hour, thanks to solid speeches by Eric Trump (but hadn’t Trump already received enough praise from his kids?), Newt Gingrich (but was the intro by his wife necessary?), and Mike Pence. The speech of Trump’s running mate didn’t match those of Sarah Palin (2008) or Paul Ryan (2012), but these were both A grade speeches, in my view. I’d give the Hoosier a B+ and I believe he will be an asset to the ticket.

Indeed, if Pence does nothing else, he has already done Trump a favor by closing a bizarre evening on a sane, comfortable, and conventionally conservative note.

Doing so became crucial because of what happened in the 9:00 hour, when Ted Cruz was booed off the stage after refusing to endorse Donald Trump.

Cruz was greeted by a big ovation. He immediately congratulated Trump on his victory and said that he wants to see GOP principles prevail in the election. This was the first hint the audience had that the Texas Senator might not endorse Trump. But the faithful must have hoped the endorsement would come at the end or, at a minimum, that Cruz would not again go to brink of an endorsement and then conspicuously pull back.

Cruz then moved on to a powerful — indeed, spellbinding — account of the daughter of one of the slain Dallas police officers. This was probably the best oratory yet at a convention that, albeit uneven, has featured some outstanding speeches.

Next, Cruz spoke movingly about freedom. This, of course, has been the topic of countless speeches by politicians, but Cruz wove the strands of his theme together skillfully, and without the preachy tone that sometimes detracts from his addresses.

Now it was time to conclude. Would Cruz return to the question of what to do in November? If not, his failure to endorse would be mildly embarrassing to Trump, but would not produce much drama. If so, one way or the other, we would witness a big moment.

Cruz returned to November. He began promisingly, from the Trump perspective, by urging voters not to stay home. Big applause.

But then, he urged audience members to “vote your conscience” and “vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.” He also said “cast aside anger for love,” which seemed like a shot at Trump.

Delegates responded by bellowing their conscience, first in the form of “we want Trump” (or “endorse Trump”) and then by booing Cruz.

Cruz responded deftly by saying “I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation.” But was it only New York delegates who were booing? I doubt it.

Trump arrived in his box seat in the midst of the commotion. The cameras caught him applauding a few of Cruz’s final lines (or during those lines, at least). But the other Trump family members seemed, understandably, unhappy.

Cruz got through his speech, returning to the dead police officer’s daughter amidst boos, which also accompanied his exit.

What to make of this? I’m not sure how I feel about it.

On the one hand, it’s hard for me to blame Cruz. As the runner-up to Trump with millions of votes cast in his favor, Cruz deserved his place at the podium. And in my view, he had the right to not endorse Trump, notwithstanding his promise last year to support the nominee. When he made that promise he could not know that Trump would try to tie Cruz’s father to the JFK assassination and insult his wife.

It seems to me that there is a salutary lesson in what Cruz did tonight. What lesson? That the kind of viciousness that Trump wantonly displayed for months during the primary season can carry a cost.

Cruz should also get credit, I think, for acting against what likely is his best interest. I’ve accused the Texas Senator of opportunism in the past, but tonight the opportunistic move probably was to give a Trump lukewarm endorsement, as Scott Walker and Marco Rubio did.

That way, in the event of a Trump defeat he couldn’t be accused of contributing to it. And in the event of a Trump victory, he might not be on the outside looking in.

On the other hand, having promised to endorse the GOP nominee, Cruz might at least have been expected not to embarrass him.

More importantly, I think, Cruz is the leader of a pretty substantial faction of the Party. It seems to me that if he was going to offer his advice about what to do in November, his advice should have been more specific than “vote your conscience” etc. As one who voted for Cruz in my state’s primary, I would like to know what his conscience is telling him.

His pride is telling him to stick it to Trump, a man with whom he shared a bromance until Trump got personal with him and his family. But as a matter of conscience, is Cruz agnostic on the question he regards as crucial in this election, namely whether Hillary or Trump is the better candidate from the standpoint of “defend[ing] our freedom and be[ing] faithful to the Constitution”?

Where does Cruz go from here? The Washington establishment can’t stand him; hardcore Trumpsters presumably now despise him; neither Hillary nor Trump is going to nominate him for the Supreme Court.

However, Cruz remains a remarkable talent admired by many Republicans. If Trump loses big, he may be remembered more for courage rather than for treachery.

What impact, if any, will the Cruz spectacle have on Trump’s chances? Probably not much. Conservatives I think will rally behind Trump, thanks in part to Mike Pence and in larger part to Hillary Clinton. Swing voters aren’t part of Cruz’s constituency. I know some independents who may even have liked seeing the Texas conservative booed.

Even so, Trump could have used a night with no surprises or tumult. The stakes will be even higher for him when he speaks tomorrow night.

One thing is for sure: the age of contested conventions may be over but three nights in Cleveland have shown that conventions can still produce surprises and tumult.

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