WASHINGTON – Did that just happen?
After Ted Cruz had finished his drop-the-mic Republican National Convention speech and been booed off the stage, historian Michael Beschloss posted the following tweet: “Never seen anything quite like this.” If a leading scholar of the presidency says we’re in uncharted waters, I have to agree.
No convention has ever heard such a ringing non-endorsement. Cruz mentioned his party’s nominee, Donald Trump, just once, offering him simple congratulations. There was only the briefest and most cursory Clinton-bashing. Instead of chanting “Lock her up,” Cruz delivered a sunny treatise on conservative principles. And then, after leading into what had to be an endorsement, he urged the assembled delegates to “vote your conscience.” Wow.
The Trump family scowled down from the VIP box. Boos resounded through the hall. Later, vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence came on to give a pretty good speech, but everyone knew the headlines would be about Cruz’s epic dis.
On one level, maybe Cruz’s non-endorsement should have come as no surprise. During the campaign, Trump attacked his wife and suggested his father might have been involved in the JFK assassination. Cruz called Trump a “sniveling coward.” It’s kind of hard to walk that stuff back – unless you’re Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie or most of the other candidates Trump vanquished in the primaries.
Cruz decided instead to take a huge gamble. He’s essentially betting that Trump will lose. Having finished second this year, Cruz hopes to establish himself as the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination in 2020. He doesn’t care whether other GOP politicians like him – and they don’t. He doesn’t want to go along, he wants to (eventually) win.
As conventions go, this one has been chaos. The Trump campaign would struggle to arrange a two-car funeral. How could organizers give Cruz such a prime speaking spot without a guarantee of an endorsement? What did they think when they read Cruz’s prepared remarks? How could they let him do his best to humiliate the party’s newly minted nominee?
This is yet another of those moments when we will see whether the normal rules of politics somehow don’t apply to Trump. Remember that chaos is his preferred environment. Remember how successful he was as a reality-television star – and then consider the extent to which Wednesday night’s events resembled a reality-show episode. Suspense was built. Shade was thrown. Overwrought emotion was put on garish display.
This is Trump’s world. His quest for the presidency may crash and burn, as it richly deserves to, but it will never be boring.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.