The boos grew and expanded outward in the arena, like ripples in a pond.
Ted Cruz threw the stone that caused them. In his speech to the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night he congratulated Donald Trump, but did not endorse the GOP nominee. He urged delegates to “vote your conscience” – meaning, you don’t have to vote for Trump if you don't want to.
There hasn’t been this sort of open conflict at a GOP convention since at least 1976, when California Gov. Ronald Reagan struggled against, and then reconciled with, incumbent President Gerald Ford for the party nomination.
If nothing else it was a bracing change from the usual – the scripted and rehearsed four-day infomercials that modern political conventions have become.
But what was the event’s meaning? Was it the act of a craven careerist, maneuvering for himself against the GOP’s interests as a whole? Was it brave, a move to save the party’s soul after it crashes with Mr. Trump at the wheel, as Senator Cruz expects? Did Cruz hurt himself? Did he damage Trump? Did he unify the party, or split it?
He did all of that, and more. Cruz’s speech was politics at its essence, an expression of the depth and subtlety of the human activity of organizing to govern. There is a reason Shakespeare wrote about politics so much.
“Ted Cruz’s decision was bold, reckless, politically stupid, brave, principled, divisive, gutsy and vindictive, all the same time,” writes National Review’s Jim Geraghty on Thursday morning. “If you’ve spent the last couple years complaining that all politicians are spineless hacks who only follow the weathervane and refuse to stand on principles, you’ve got no reason to complain this morning.”
There’s lots of comment Thursday to the effect that Cruz is positioning himself for a 2020 presidential effort, and this is part of his long game preparation. The part about him wanting to run again in four years is almost certainly true. But Cruz is smart enough to know that it is impossible to predict whether this will help or hurt him four years hence.
The next presidential race is another country. Things will be different there in ways we don’t know today. Trump versus Clinton is only the first of innumerable events with binary outcomes that will shape US politics and culture over the next four years. Cruz isn’t playing chess. He’s throwing dice.
That means the most likely explanation for Cruz’s convention snub is that this is who he is. The Texas senator is not known for his ability to smoothly mesh with colleagues and work toward their version of party goals. He has few friends in the Senate and has defied and angered the party leadership ever since he arrived in Washington. So on Wednesday he defied and angered the Trump leadership in Cleveland.
The result caused people to change their minds about Cruz. Some delegates who supported Cruz in the primaries were aghast at his incivility. Others who had opposed him were impressed with what they felt was his courage at standing up to Trump’s takeover of the party.
But Cruz is still the same person he was then, pointed out GOP strategist Patrick Ruffini, a #NeverTrump adherent, on Wednesday night.
“What many of you don’t like about Ted Cruz shutting down the government is what you like about him tonight,” Ruffini tweeted.
And Cruz may have had simple revenge in mind. During the campaign, Trump passed along tweets that criticized the physical appearance of Cruz’s wife, Heidi. Bizarrely, Trump implied that Cruz’s father, a political refugee from Cuba, might have been involved in the plotting surrounding JFK’s assassination. (He wasn’t. To be clear.)
It’s quite possible that the Trump forces, knowing that Cruz’s speech would fall short of a full endorsement, whipped up the negative reaction in the hall at the end of Cruz’s speech. Trump himself entered the family box near the end, distracting much of the crowd and pulling attention way from the Texan on the podium.
The assertion that presidential candidates need a unified and message-controlled convention for electoral success is a US political truism. If nothing else, the Cruz comments will test that. To this point the Republican National Convention has been a wild and distracting experience for the Republican Party.
Unless the nominee himself delivers a speech worthy of Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy, the party seems likely to enter the general election campaign still spinning from its Cleveland experience.