The third day of the Republican National Convention was a dramatic one. Donald Trump began the day as the party’s official presidential nominee, and apparently, under the impression that stifling dissent is tantamount to achieving unity. Ted Cruz showed him otherwise.
The Texas senator began his speech by congratulating Trump on winning the nomination, and went on to talk about the conservative principles that he would like to see prevail in November. Some delegates, apparently, were expecting this to culminate in an endorsement of Trump’s bid for the presidency. It did not. Rather Cruz called on Republicans to “vote your conscience” in November; to vote for candidates “who you trust” to defend the Constitution. Trump supporters in the arena interpreted those lines as a direct snub of their candidate. Near the end of Cruz’s speech, Trump emerged from backstage with an angry glower on this face as delegates hurled boos at Cruz, who was standing right in front of them refusing to give in to their demands.
Trump and his surrogates spent the rest of the night, and most of this morning thus far, denouncing Cruz on various media outlets as a weasel who lied to the candidate and the country; an ambitious opportunist who could have helped unify the party but decided to prioritize his own ambition; a creep with no friends in Washington who just committed political suicide, and so on. I’m not sure why they consider that a good strategy for Trump, whose campaign was trailing Hillary Clinton’s in polls well before Cruz took the stage. They may be looking to scapegoat Cruz for their defeat in November, but if I were them I’d be focused on avoiding the humiliation of a landslide defeat.
Setting aside the political strategy, Trump supporters’ criticisms of Cruz are wrong. If Trump was banking on Cruz’s endorsement he has only himself to blame for that. Sources close to both Cruz and Trump have said that Trump knew, prior to last night, that Cruz was not going to endorse Trump; Trump’s supporters have cited that as evidence of Trump’s graciousness, despite the fact that in doing so they flatly contradict their argument that Cruz played a dirty trick on Trump. Beyond that, though, they could have easily anticipated that Cruz, unlike so many other Republican officials, would refuse to comply on this point. I reported in May that Cruz was almost certainly not going to back Trump. Cruz had specified certain criteria about character and intentions that Trump could not meet. I made the same prediction last week, on the eve of the convention, and again yesterday afternoon, during a “thank you” event Cruz held for his delegates, at which he had, similarly, called for fidelity to principles and encouraged everyone to vote their conscience. Some of the delegates there yesterday, incidentally, told me that they would support Trump in the general, even though they had supported Cruz in the primary; some may have been taken aback by his remarks last night, but most warmly applauded his very similar remarks yesterday afternoon.
It’s true that during the primary Cruz did sign a pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee. And although Trump is hardly in a position to insist that the pledge was inviolate, we shouldn’t hold Cruz to Trump’s debased standard. We can, however, fairly consider the point that Cruz made this morning to the Texas delegation: when he signed the pledge, it was under the assumption, which subsequently proved naive, that the eventual nominee wouldn’t have directly attacked his wife and father.
We should also consider that Trump is offering nothing other than the pledge as evidence that he is entitled to an endorsement. As I’ve pointed out before, Cruz’s criteria for endorsing a candidate weren’t exactly that stringent. If Trump can’t credibly claim that he can be trusted as commander in chief, no one should be endorsing him for president, surely. And yet just last night, as Trump’s surrogates were berating Cruz all over cable television programs, the news came out that Trump doesn’t see why America should honor its commitments under NATO—a treaty that can, ironically, be considered a sort of pledge and a vitally important one.
None of that, of course, will be sufficient to exonerate Cruz in the eyes of his critics, who have been pouring scorn on him since last night. In some cases, their criticisms can be dismissed as ideologically or personally motivated. Chris Christie, for example, may sincerely have felt that Cruz’s speech was “awful” and “selfish,” as he told CNN’s Theodore Schleifer. Alternatively, he may have merely been uncomfortable watching Cruz illustrate that the craven path chosen by Christie, and many others, was not the only one available. And some of Cruz’s critics are grousing, more generally, that his decision to publicly defy the party’s 2016 nominee was proof that he threw Trump under the bus in order to establish himself as the leading candidate for the nomination in 2020. That line of criticism is impossible to falsify; Cruz clearly plans to run for president again in 2020, and watching his speech at the state convention in May, I had the impression that he wouldn’t hesitate to do so even if Trump wins in November.
Worth considering, though, is that what Cruz said in an interview with me back in May was more or less exactly what he said last night—even though, at the time, Trump was widely considered a more competitive general election candidate than he is today; many people were still under the impression that he would “pivot” to the general election, and perhaps even expand the party. Also worth considering is that regardless of what happens in November, Cruz took a major risk last night. With so many of his peers having issued their endorsements of Trump, grudgingly or not, there would have been no real downside to him from doing the same. As it stands, he’s out on a limb, nearly alone. He’s in good company, with Republicans like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, but it’s a small company, and Cruz is the only member who is likely to run for president again. If so, he can expect to be criticized for having helped Hillary Clinton get elected, even though the blame for that will clearly belong with the Republican Party, which has now nominated Donald Trump.