The official theme of Wednesday night’s Republican National Convention session is “Make America First Again,” which is broad enough to accommodate almost any topics, so long as they generate chants of “USA! USA!” Technically, the big headliner is vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, who will presumably show off his attack-dog chops while burnishing the ticket’s dubious street cred for conservative orthodoxy. There will be the usual representatives of the Trump Brand: son Eric Trump and a staff member (!) of the Trump Foundation. Veep runner-up Newt Gingrich will be given a chance along with his wife, Callista, to advertise the historical videos they sell to keep themselves in the one percent. And you have to guess the Big Man himself will appear at some point, live or on video, perhaps by showing up to clasp hands with his running mate after Pence demands Hillary Clinton’s incarceration. Those who find the whole show boring can look forward to the now-customary logistical or scheduling screwup.
But from a purely political perspective, tonight will be Loser Night, with speeches scheduled for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker. This is an opportunity for three of Trump’s vanquished rivals to make their peace with the Trumpified GOP and implicitly offer themselves as future presidential candidates (all three of them are in their 40s, so the odds they have permanently overcome presidential fever are very slim). You have to figure that, like most objective observers, they privately figure Trump’s going to lose, but cannot be too certain about it. So they have to show some solidarity to insulate themselves from any stab-in-the-back recriminations, and also to stake some claim to Trump’s core supporters in the future.
Of the three, Cruz has the most formidable challenge. He’s the only one who has not more or less endorsed Trump; you have to assume there’s an implicit deal for him to do so or he would have not been allowed anywhere close to the podium (though Fox News did report yesterday that his speech had not been read, much less vetted, by the RNC/Trump managers of the convention). But there are many ways to go about signaling grudging support and avoiding the accusation of giving aid and comfort to Hillary Clinton. Cruz really needs to maintain the tenuous yet priceless reputation he gained during this campaign as the leader of the conservative movement. His models for tonight could well be Ronald Reagan in 1976 and Ted Kennedy in 1980: losing candidates who held off endorsements until the last minute and then delivered gripping speeches about the Cause transcending any candidate and any election cycle. More than his fellow losers tonight, Cruz has never stopped running for president. He needs to come out of the convention being described as the early front-runner for 2020 or (if Trump somehow wins) for 2024.
Marco Rubio needs to begin the rehabilitation of his image as the multicultural (but still conservative!) future of the GOP, after a short but fatal stretch of bad moves during the early primaries — beginning with a terrible debate performance in New Hampshire and ending with a shocking and humiliating loss in his home state, with those juvenile gibes at Trump nestled in between. Now that he’s decided to remain in the Senate, his immediate future is secure (assuming he’s not dragged down to defeat in November by Trump, which remains entirely possible). Yet, paradoxically, his national aspirations would benefit greatly from a Trump disaster, especially if the ticket and the party do as poorly among Hispanic voters as they might. So you can expect Rubio to say brief positive things about the 2016 nominee and then whale away at Hillary Clinton. He might even remind delegates that he was the first candidate to argue that HRC’s behavior in the Benghazi and email “scandals” disqualified her from the presidency.
The third of the “losers,” Scott Walker, basically has to make himself nationally relevant again. Much like Tim Pawlenty in 2012, Walker was the solid “on paper” first-tier candidate until the campaign heated up and he left voters cold. His big credential — that his record in Wisconsin showed him to be the most electable “true conservative” — became meaningless in a nomination contest turned upside down by Trump. Walker’s future is uncertain: He has the option of running for a third term as governor, but has to wonder if his act there will eventually get old. He has no private-sector career path to fall back on; he’s been a full-time politician and office-holder for nearly half of his life. And it’s doubtful if he stepped down as governor anyone would beat on his door to offer him a TV show or even a syndicated column. His ultimate sources of support in the GOP are the businesspeople (most notably the Koch brothers) who have enormously appreciated his efforts to destroy the labor movement in Wisconsin, and the conservative Evangelicals who recognize him as one of their own. He could well use his time in the spotlight tonight burnishing those relationship.
For all three of these gentlemen, however, the time in the spotlight could be exceptionally fleeing. As we have seen, at a Trump convention there’s an ever-ready possibility of something strange happening that blots out the sky and absorbs all of the media and delegate attention. And Trump himself will dominate the proceedings tomorrow night, and the GOP campaign thereafter. So if Cruz, Rubio, and Walker want to make some enduring memories tonight, they’d better be more than just good.