CLEVELAND—Senator Ted Cruz strode out on stage at the Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday to thunderous, extended applause. He left, smiling tightly, to equally thunderous, equally extended boos.
The applause was Cruz’s reward for appearing at the Republican National Convention hosted by Donald Trump. The boos were his penalty for refusing to endorse Trump during the speech. It was the latest stunning turn at a convention that remains stubbornly fractured, despite pleas to paper over differences on three straight nights. The GOP simply isn’t ready to unify.
The rapturous reception when Cruz came out was striking but not so strange. After all, even though the feud between Cruz and Trump grew increasingly bitter as the primary campaign went on, polls showed substantial overlap between their two voter bases. But it became clear from the start of the speech that Cruz, like a trio of other famous Texans, wasn’t ready to make nice.
“I want to congratulate Donald Trump on winning the nomination last night,” Cruz said. It was a twice-barbed comment: Not only was it not an endorsement, the insistence that Trump had won only Tuesday, after a series of revolts by pro-Cruz delegates were put down, was a subtle jab. The rest of the speech included a series of double-edged remarks that could be taken as either support for party unity or continued disdain for Trump:
“I want to see the principles our party believes prevail in November.”
“What if this, right now, is our last time? ... Did we live up to our values? Did we do all we could? That’s really what elections should be about.... We’re fighting, not for one particular candidate or one campaign, but because each of us wants to be able to tell our kids and grandkids... that we did our best for their future, and for our country.”
“Freedom means religious freedom, whether you are Christian or Jew, Muslim or atheist.”
And perhaps most cleverly: “Don’t stay home in November. Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.”
Cruz can be an excellent speaker, and he was on his game Wednesday. The crowd was into it. But as the address approached its conclusion, and it became clear that there was no endorsement coming, the crowd grew increasingly agitated. Pockets of people pointed and shouted, “Endorse Trump!” And as Cruz reached for the big finish, the boos broke out. It was stunning. Across the press box, jaded journalists’ jaws hung agape.
The up-and-down pattern exemplified by Cruz’s address persisted throughout the night. Early in the evening, Laura Ingraham delivered a barnburner of a speech. “We should all, even all you boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos, pledge to support Donald Trump now,” she said. “This is the most important election since 1980.” (Cruz apparently didn’t hear her.) But a sleepy, meandering speech by casino owner Phil Ruffin, punctuated with borderline laughable statements—“If Donald tells you something, put it in the bank. His handshake is better than any contract you will ever write”—let the air out of the room. A bit later, Pastor Darrell Scott of Cleveland Heights had the room on its feet; businessman Harold Hamm got them to sit back down again. Governor Scott Walker, whose endorsements of Trump had been tortured, offered stronger backing in his speech, which was punctuated by a refrain of “America deserves better.” But he was followed by Lynne Patton, vice president of the Eric Trump Foundation. Yes, really.
Adding to the weirdness, Newt Gingrich decided to kick off his own speech with an impromptu attempt to walk back Cruz’s non-endorsement. “I think you misunderstood one paragraph that Ted Cruz, who’s a superb orator, said,” Gingrich insisted. “He said, you can vote your conscience for anyone who would uphold the Constitution. In this election, there is only one candidate who will uphold the Constitution.”
Gingrich praised Trump for inviting his competitors speak at the convention without demanding an endorsement. Trump couldn’t have been taken by surprise; the speech Cruz delivered was nearly identical to prepared remarks sent out ahead of time. The radical honesty made for great television, but it was also likely political malpractice. Not only did it make the Cruz boos the big story of the night, but the victim was Mike Pence, the vice-presidential candidate whose speech was meant to be its centerpiece.
And it was a good speech. Pence was self-effacing and poised. He movingly praised his mother, wife, and children. Poking fun at his relatively low profile compared to Trump, the Indiana governor quipped, “He’s a man known for a large personality, a colorful style, and lots of charisma, and so I guess he was just looking for some balance on the ticket.” (He also stands to bring some accent balance to the ticket. He told the audience the change Trump would bring would be “hhhhuge,” emphasizing the initial letter.)
Despite a less bellicose reputation than his vanquished rivals for the running-mate slot, Pence showed that he could be an able attacker. Democrats “tell us this economy is the best that we can do. It’s nowhere near the best that we can do. It’s just the best that they can do.” He said that if Hillary Clinton were elected, the nation would have to “get used to unelected judges using unaccountable means to take unconstitutional actions.” He also managed to put a slightly friendlier gloss on “Blue Lives Matter” mantra other speakers have recited at the convention. “We will always stand with those who stand on the thin blue line of law enforcement in America,” Pence said.
In short, it was polished, smooth, and effective—not the most memorable speech in political history, but a strong performance, which was exactly what the Donald Trump campaign needed and wanted when it selected a veteran politician as a running mate. Unfortunately for Trump and Pence, though, he was neither the best nor the most memorable speaker of the night. That honor went to Ted Cruz.
—David A. Graham