It was hard to pay attention to the next Trump child at the podium with the next willowy blonde spouse. It was hard to listen to Newt and Callista Gingrich, of Gingrich Productions (in case you hadn’t heard of their book and film business). Even the genial Mike Pence moment fell short when compared to the thumpin’ Ted Cruz gave to Donald Trump.
It is unheard of to put a speaker on the platform who will not endorse the nominee by name. That’s why Jerry Brown, the California governor, didn’t address the Democratic Convention in 1992 after he lost to Bill Clinton. It. Just. Doesn’t. Happen.
There’d been questions about whether Cruz, who ran second to Trump, would really not utter the words.
But he didn’t.
There was a “congratulations” to Donald Trump for winning the nomination—the kind of thing you could say to your worst enemy. But that was it. No wonder Gingrich came out and tried to spin Cruz’s remarks as a Trump endorsement—a bit of improvisation that was also unprecedented, if not downright weird.
The only good news for the campaign was that Cruz was off stage when the broadcast networks began their coverage. But that’s little comfort: The Texas senator became the story. Bad campaign management became the story. Once again, the WTF campaign had another WTF moment. The Texan was met with boos as his speech drew to a close, as the crowd realized it was going to be deprived of seeing the challenger become a supplicant. Chris Christie quickly called Cruz’s snub “selfish.” Someone tried to slug the Texas senator when he stopped by a donor suite afterwards, according to CNN. Trump played down the Cruz slap, tweeting it was "no big deal" and he was well aware of the non endorsement. But the smoldering anger on his face and that of his family told a different story.
Cruz’s speech quickly telegraphed where he was going—and it wasn’t to embrace Trump. He lingered on themes of Republican unity much more than usual—Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, the Republican fight against Jim Crow (okay, maybe that didn’t include Barry Goldwater). He did a hat tip to the rights of “gays” which is not usually his thing. It was a coming together speech from Washington’s legendary divider, the guy who shut down the government and called the Senate Republican leader a liar. His invocation of a Dallas police officer who was slain by an assassin earlier this month has an oddly unifying theme. It was a wise choice for Cruz. The officer was killed in his home state and had a wife with same name as his, Heidi, and a daughter the same age as one of his own. “I have no idea who he voted for in the last election, or what he thought about this one,” Cruz said of Michael Smith, a former Army Ranger. “But his life was a testament to devotion.”
There were also none-too-subtle digs at Trump. “We deserve leaders who stand for principle. Unite us all behind shared values. Cast aside anger for love. That is the standard we should expect, from everybody.” Um, that’s not Trump who Cruz castigated as a phony conservative and a hater.
And then there was this: “Freedom means recognizing that our constitution allows states to choose policies that reflect local values. Colorado may decide something different than Texas. New York different than Iowa.”
The Colorado line hearkened back to Cruz’s repeated claim that he thought the state had the right to legalize pot but he would never want it for Texas. The Iowa-New York line? Those two states weren’t chosen arbitrarily. Iowa is the first state to vote for president in 2016—and 2020. Cruz won it and must win it again if he chooses to run, which he surely will if Trump loses. And New York? On the campaign trail, Cruz often chided “New York values” as a dig at Trump, an effort to portray him as a liberal in conservative clothing. It was a dog whistle, as they say.
After this kind of speech, the crowd knew that Cruz wouldn’t endorse. That’s why the boos began, the chants of “Trump! Trump!” from the New York delegation. The speech led to one place, a call to “vote your conscience” which is anything but an endorsement.
No single speech can refurbish Cruz, who many Republicans see as an unctuous, hyper-ambitious pol, and turn him into a principled, maverick conservative who can unite America. But he did do something that may not have been brave but was at least audacious. Compare his speech to that of his fellow Texan, former Governor Rick Perry, who dubbed Trump a “cancer” in the party then came to Cleveland and tossed him a bouquet.
Ben Sasse, the Republican freshman Senator from Nebraska, has been the leader of the #NeverTrump forces in Congress. But Cruz stole that mantle tonight, and he got people to rethink how they see him.
If Trump wins, Cruz is poised to mount a challenge to the incumbent president. If Trump loses, he can claim to be DeGaulle, saying he was never a Vichy Republican. Ted Cruz the hero. Think about that.
This really is the weirdest year ever.