The wedge between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and their respective supporters, has been palpable coming into the convention, and allowing Ted Cruz to speak without requiring an endorsement was probably a mistake from the get-go. But did Cruz handle it as well as he could have?
Politics is a contact sport, but it’s also a team sport. Cruz prefers chess and debate, which decidedly are not team sports. (Yes, yes, there are “chess teams” and “debate teams” but take my word for it, these are not team sports.) Trump is a towel-snapping former high school baseball player, and a decent Sunday golf and tennis player.
Trump is the kind of guy who can knee you in the family jewels and then invite you to eat dinner with his family (he’s done things very close to this). It’s inconceivable to Trump that Cruz would be bitter after a rough campaign. It’s inconceivable to Cruz that Trump would expect him to cozy up for the team after being called “Lyin’ Ted,” and having his wife attacked.
Not to mention being the subject of a heinous hit-piece accusing him of multiple affairs in Trump-friendly National Enquirer.
Lyin' Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2016
KARL: Let me ask you, this story, this — that we see in “The National Enquirer,” this kind of rumor-mongering, should this kind of thing just be off limits?
Do you condemn this story?
TRUMP: I don’t care. I’m really, I don’t care. “The National Enquirer” did a story. It was their story. It wasn’t my story. It was about Ted Cruz. I have no idea whether it was right or not. They actually have a very good record of being right. But I have absolutely no idea.
Frankly, I said, I hope it’s not right.
And then Trump accused Cruz’s dad of involvement in JFK’s assassination.
Mr. Trump’s comments also came on the day of the Indiana primary, where the Republican front-runner can effectively close out any chance for Mr. Cruz to deny him the presidential nomination.
In the interview, Mr. Trump was asked to respond to the elder Mr. Cruz’s invocations of God as he urged evangelical voters to support his son, suggesting the alternative could mean the “destruction of America.”
“I think it’s a disgrace that he’s allowed to do it. I think it’s a disgrace that he’s allowed to say it,” Mr. Trump said, before adding, “And, you know, his father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous. What is this, right, prior to his being shot, and nobody brings it up. They don’t even talk about that. That was reported and nobody talks about it. But I think it’s horrible.”
After Indiana, it was over. Trump never called or reached out to Cruz in any way. Cruz was certainly open to whatever he could do at the convention to stop Trump, but given the party establishment’s support of Trump (and opposition to Cruz), it was a long, long shot. It was not to be.
Then seemingly out of nowhere, Trump offered Cruz a speaking slot without requiring an endorsement. Maybe it was one of Trump’s impetuous acts, made without thinking. Cruz reportedly accepted on the spot. But obviously Cruz was still bitter–and no apology was forthcoming from Trump.
In retrospect, Cruz could have handled his speech better. He congratulated Trump for being nominated, then proceeded to grit his teeth and give the best stemwinder of his life, but the bitterness was evident to many. Possibly, even the smallest olive branch of “it was a hard fought campaign,” some levity, some cultural relevance outside the heavy, suffocating topic of dead cops and ISIS, would have improved Cruz’s impression on the crowd.
The convention delegates and viewers, outside of Cruz’s hard core supporters, wanted to hear a positive message, an uplifting message. They got a debate topic, a lecture, and a prescriptive tone. The tone could have been better, even without the endorsement. Knowing that he was going to get booed, Cruz just went full-bore, speaking truth to power.
I earlier wrote that such a speech was a fantasy that Cruz’s die-hard supporters (I am one) would not get. But that’s exactly what he delivered. In the long run, I don’t think it will do damage to Cruz, who have plenty of time to remain a statesman and defender of conservatism. But in the short term, it elevated the petty and divisive acts engineered by Trump and Manafort to more or less reasonable in many people’s eyes.
A more positive, jocular, and brighter visioned tone may have taken the edge off those boos and exposed them for the staged retributive acts of political blackmail that they were. But Cruz got his say, and meant every word.
Time heals all wounds. The bitterness will fade, and even the withering criticism will pass. In a week, nobody will remember Cruz’s speech, and everyone will move on to the next scandal in the news. By November, we’ll all likely be saying how right Cruz was that night in Cleveland.