I think Chris Cillizza is guilty of being both too cynical and not cynical enough. Of course, this is forgivable, since watching Ted Cruz and Donald Trump can be a dizzying experience.
As I explained last night (and I am much more confident in my assessment this morning), I believe that Donald Trump knew exactly what Ted Cruz would and wouldn’t say last night and was determined to see him booed off the stage and humiliated. I won’t rehash my argument for this here other than to say that I’ve seen plenty more corroboration of my theory, including that even the press had an accurate advance copy of the speech two hours before Cruz delivered it.
If you have trouble believing that Trump would prioritize humiliating Cruz over highlighting his running mate, you probably aren’t from the New York metro area and/or had trouble initially believing that Chris Christie would shut down the George Washington Bridge because some lowly Democratic mayor refused to endorse him. It’s a cultural thing.
In any case, Cillizza doesn’t really entertain this possibility and instead tells us that “it was a stunning thing to witness … the man everyone expected to, eventually, fall in line behind Trump” give a speech in which he did not endorse. I guess Cillizza didn’t read the advance copy of the speech or listen to both the Cruz and the Trump camps explain that they all knew, days in advance, that Cruz’s speech would carry no endorsement. When he says that “everyone” expected Cruz to endorse, that’s pretty much 180 degrees away from the truth. Certainly Trump didn’t think that, and he tweeted as much right after his New York delegation booed Cruz off the stage at the same moment that he made a dramatic and synchronized entrance into the hall.
Wow, Ted Cruz got booed off the stage, didn't honor the pledge! I saw his speech two hours early but let him speak anyway. No big deal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 21, 2016
So, no, Trump knew precisely what Cruz was going to say and he wanted Cruz to say it and he wanted Cruz booed off the stage as he emerged triumphant to be seated for his son’s speech which was scheduled to follow. When walking to his car after the show was over, Trump replied simply to a question on his reaction to Cruz’s speech: “I loved it.”
As for Cruz, he was definitely caught by surprise. His speech had been vetted and approved. It didn’t really say anything that would warrant the spontaneous reaction he received. There’s no way that the whole New York delegation (and pretty much only the New York delegation) was collectively and instantaneously outraged by the words “vote your conscience” without prepping and prompting.
Cruz was using a strategy by deciding to show up and not endorse. He was choosing his (fully vetted and approved) words carefully. But he wasn’t counting on getting booed off the stage.
Now, Cillizza (and many others) have praised Cruz’s cunning gambit here. The basic story is that Trump will lose and lose very badly. And when that happens, the best place to be is as far removed from Trump as possible. Cruz’s supposed brilliance is in realizing that he’d get more mileage out of irritating people at the convention by not endorsing than he would by simply staying away as so many others had chosen to do.
In this telling, Cruz is 100% a conniving and ruthless strategist who sees many steps ahead of his competitors. Completely discounted is the possibility that Cruz has normal human emotions and resentments about things like his wife being disrespected and his father being accused of complicity in the assassination of a former president. Also totally blown off is the idea that Cruz might actually have some conservative or basic American principles that lead him to reject Trump’s candidacy and go on the record about it. I don’t normally quote Jonah Goldberg approvingly, but what he says can’t be discounted.
Ted Cruz has never been my favorite politician. And I am not so naïve that I don’t recognize the gamble Cruz is making.
But if the choice is between forgiving Ted Cruz’s obvious political calculation to become the standard bearer of an authentic conservatism or Donald Trump’s lizard-brain narcissism where no principle or cause outranks his own glandular desire to be worshipped like a conqueror atop the carcass of conservatism, I choose Ted.
If the choice is between, say, congratulating the Boy Scoutish obedience of Mike Pence as he sells off bits and pieces of his soul like jewels from a family heirloom just to survive another day or Ted Cruz, who took the tougher road and refused to join the mewling mobs of toadies, apologists, human weathervanes, difference-splitters, and vacillators, I choose Ted.
Yes, Cruz was calculating, but he was also taking up the banner of an “authentic conservatism.”
And, okay, I know people will always try to rescue the virtue of authentic conservatism from the hands of Movement Conservatives, but they do have principles they believe in and that Trump does not. If Cruz believes even five percent of what he says, he’s legitimately appalled by many of Trump’s policies and utterances. In the news right now, for example, is Trump’s refusal to unqualifiedly honor our NATO commitments. That’s a deal-breaker for Americans of all stripes, definitely including most conservatives. In speaking for Jonah Goldberg, it’s at least possible that Cruz was also authentically speaking for himself. That he understands the short-term risks and potential long-term benefits of this doesn’t make it a 100% cynical move. And it doesn’t make it a 100% principled stand, either. It is a confluence of factors that explain Cruz’s behavior.
The counternarrative is that Cruz was thinking of no one but himself and put his career ambitions over the best interests of the party. He was selfish and petty.
That’s going to be the dominant narrative in the short-term because the Republican Party isn’t going to take down their tent and begin praising conscientious objectors to their own nominee four months before the election. For now Cruz is the guy who broke his pledge and got booed off the stage, and that’s as far as Trump can see or cared to see. For Trump, none of it matters unless he wins, and exerting his dominance is part of his strategy for winning and also a foundational part of his personality. He wanted Cruz humiliated, so he was humiliated.
What Trump didn’t factor in is how this would be perceived outside of his narrow circle of supporters. Cruz emerged as a principled person who somehow punk’d Trump at his own convention. That wasn’t the narrative Trump wanted, which is why he is eager to tell everyone that he knew exactly what Cruz would say and permitted him to say it.
But, of course, that happens to be true.