RNC Day Three: Cruz Derails Trump Train

CLEVELAND—It was supposed to have been Mike Pence’s star turn, accepting his party’s nomination to the number-two spot on the national ticket. But before Pence even reached the stage of the Republican National Convention, the moment was snatched from him by the man presidential nominee Donald J. Trump dubbed Lyin’ Ted.


Trump no doubt knew that putting U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas on the convention’s primetime schedule was a risk, especially after a bitter primary in which Trump mocked the appearance of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and accused Cruz’s father, Raul, of being a communist who was in on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And aside from just being mean, it was Trump who grabbed onto the news in Iowa that, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Cruz’s people had spread a false rumor that their fellow rival, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, planned to quit the race at any moment—news that inspired one of Trump’s stickiest monikers.

Yet Trump also knew—or was convinced by his ace team of political advisers—that it would be more of a risk not to put Cruz on the convention stage in a good slot; too many Republican primary voters had cast their lot with the Lone Star State’s favorite son.

Say what you will about Cruz, he knows how to work a crowd into a dither. For his supporters, it’s a euphoric experience; for his opponents, it’s a frenzy of frustration. And sometimes it’s a little bit of both for everybody.

In a barnburner of a speech Wednesday night, Cruz managed not to endorse his party’s presidential nominee. In fact, the only time he mentioned Donald Trump’s name was to congratulate him for having won the nomination. 

Oh, sure, he hit upon the recurring red-meat themes of the convention: the recent killings of police officers by gunmen who seem to have been motivated by unjustified shootings of black people by police; opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran; and criticism of Democratic presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. But those seemed almost beside the point.

Cruz’s speech, all about voting on freedom principles and states’ rights, was well-received, including the surprise bit about how the Constitution allows LGBT people to exist. “Whether you are gay, or straight, the Bill of Rights protects the rights of all of us to live according to our conscience,” Cruz said. But it was a setup, the use of that loaded word, “conscience.” For when the senator famous for his filibuster reached his big wind-up, he elicited boos from the floor when he said this:

"If you love our country—and love our children as much as you do—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."

Seated just in front of the stage was the delegation from the nominee’s home state.

“I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation,” Cruz said at the sound of the jeers.

The message heard by those taking issue was that Cruz was asking those who consider themselves to be constitutional conservatives to sit on their hands on election day. And that quickly became the media story of Day Three.

Poor Mike Pence never had a chance. By the time House Speaker Paul Ryan took the podium to introduce Trump’s running mate, the night might as well have been over. So much for party unity.

A Week of Disorder

It’s been like that all week. On the first day, a minority of rules committee members who wanted to eliminate restrictions that require delegates to vote in the formal nominating process for the candidate who won in their jurisdictions argued that they should be permitted to vote on “conscience.”

On Monday, I attended a gathering co-hosted by right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and political operative Roger Stone titled the America First Unity Rally. However, when Stone, who seems to be quite involved with Trump’s messaging, took the stage, he said, really, the Trump campaign wasn’t about unifying the party. "This is [about] the elites of the Republican and Democratic Party, who have driven this country into the ditch, versus Donald J. Trump and the rest of America." 

The very conduct of the convention mirrored the disorder on the floor. In the seven national political conventions I have covered, never before have I had to report one for which the media were given no schedule of when speakers would appear on the stage, or in what order.

The Quicken Loan Center arena where the convention took place was full only on the floor and the first tier of seats; empty seats occupied large sections of the venue.

Donald Trump’s imposition of his id over the whole of the convention added up to a week of chaos and disorder, served up by a candidate who promises competence because he says so.

But the proof, they say, is in the pudding—which seems to have curdled.

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