This Republican convention continues to amaze. The man constantly referred to from the podium as the world’s greatest negotiator went along with giving his last and strongest rival for the nomination a prime-time speaking gig knowing that Ted Cruz would not endorse him. Cruz took the stage knowing that the Trump majority of the crowd would be angered if he conspicuously failed to offer the kind of straight-forward support Marco Rubio had just provided in a short video played on the giant screen in Quicken Loans Arena.
This arrangement was difficult to make sense of from either politician’s perspective. Cruz’s admittedly difficult challenge was to speak as the present and future leader of a conservative movement that would live on when Donald Trump, in victory or in defeat, had passed from the scene. Like Ronald Reagan in 1976, he needed to steal the stage without appearing to provide aid and comfort to the partisan enemy. When — many minutes after a tepid and indirect reference at the beginning of his remarks that he wanted Republican principles to triumph in November — he finally urged Republicans to “vote their consciences,” it was an unmistakable shout-out to the #NeverTrump conservatives who are still looking for a write-in candidate or could perhaps cast a protest vote for Gary Johnson. It was directly defiant and provoked scattered boos and complaints from the arena, building to a howling furor that all but drowned out his final words.
Then, Donald Trump wandered into the arena, presumably to listen to his son, Eric, speak, or perhaps to applaud his new running mate, Mike Pence. But it gave the dramatic perception that he had arrived to join in the shouting-down of the man he so memorably called “Lyin’ Ted.” It was, to borrow a comparison cited by Andrew Sullivan, a moment straight out of pro wrestling.
It was exceptionally revealing when Newt Gingrich came onto the stage a bit later and attempted — ridiculously — to spin Cruz’s speech as an endorsement:
The Trump Twitter account is going to be very interesting over the next 24 hours. But once again, Trump has lost control of his own convention. Pity poor Mike Pence, the ostensible headliner of the evening, whose introduction to the convention was already under the cloud of the Trump-Cruz confrontation — the only thing that people will be talking about in the hours after this session.
As for Cruz, this looks like a bet that Trump’s going to lose in November, perhaps very badly, making the Texan’s lack of enthusiasm understandable if not prophetic, and also making him the obvious front-runner for 2020 as a beacon of the orthodox-conservative ideology to which a defeated GOP will probably want to return. It’s even possible that if Trump wins, Cruz intends to treat him much as he treated the Republican leadership of Congress — as another pol who lies to the good Republican folks. But he’s declined to take the easy way out, and for that, he probably deserves the renewed attention he is about to get.