Ted Cruz is playing a smarter long game than Scott Walker or Marco Rubio

Three 40-something politicians who had hoped to be this year’s GOP presidential nominee addressed the Republican National Convention last night. Only one of them upstaged what was supposed to be the evening’s highlight: a speech by vice presidential nominee and Indiana Governor Mike Pence.

Although Senator Ted Cruz drew boos from many in the crowd and was panned by some journalists, he ended the night better-positioned for a possible 2020 race than either Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or Senator Marco Rubio.

Cruz’s speech went on for more than 20 minutes, “pushing parts of Mr. Pence’s speech well beyond prime time.” But that’s not the main reason Republican Party leaders and Donald Trump surrogates were fuming afterwards.

You can read the full text at the Conservative Review website or watch the full video here. PBS posted a shorter video containing the key portion:

Building up to what would have been the logical moment to endorse Donald Trump for president, Cruz instead told the crowd,

We deserve leaders who stand for principle. Unite us all behind shared values. Cast aside anger for love. That is the standard we should expect, from everybody.

And to those listening, please, don’t stay home in November. 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.

As some enraged delegates started booing and demanding that Cruz endorse Trump explicitly, the senator from Texas smiled and said he appreciated “the enthusiasm of the New York delegation.”

Taking the stage after Cruz, Newt Gingrich tried to salvage the situation. He had planned to say, “Senator Ted Cruz in particular made the key point that we need to elect the Trump-Pence Republican ticket.” Instead, Gingrich improvised,

“Ted Cruz said you can vote your conscience for anyone who will uphold the Constitution,” Gingrich said. “This election, there is only one candidate who will uphold the Constitution. So to paraphrase Ted Cruz, if you want to protect the Constitution of the United States, the only possible candidate this fall is the Trump-Pence Republican ticket.”

Trump himself tweeted later, “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!”

Sure, no big deal. Cruz only overshadowed your running mate’s debut and made his non-endorsement the big story from the RNC’s third day.

Though Pence delivered his speech capably to close out the evening, the Cruz snub was the talk of late-night television and Thursday morning newspapers. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie blasted the speech as “awful” and “selfish,” a point echoed by journalist David Shuster. Nathan Gonzales of CQ Roll Call said Cruz looked like a “sore loser.” Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer described the speech as the “longest suicide note in US political history.”

Though at least two of Iowa’s RNC delegates praised Cruz (Adam Motzko and Marlys Popma), reaction from Iowa GOP insiders was largely negative. State party chair Jeff Kaufmann told Patrick Svitek last night, “I know in Iowa it’s not going to be helpful.” Jason Noble reported for the Des Moines Register today,

“If you’re going to come to the Republican convention, you better come supporting the candidate,” said delegate Randy Feenstra, a state senator from Iowa’s ardently conservative northwest corner. “If you don’t come, like Kasich or others, I get it. But don’t throw it in my face and tell me you’re not going to support the guy at the national convention.” […]

“To me,” Feenstra said of Cruz’s speech, “it’s sour grapes.” […]

“If he felt he couldn’t render an endorsement, it probably would have been best for him not to accept the invitation,” [RNC] committeeman Steve Scheffler said. “It’s just a real disappointment.”

Even conservatives who like Cruz and previously supported him were taken aback by the speech, said delegate and state Sen. Bill Anderson.

“There were a lot of conservatives on that floor, and a lot of conservatives booing last night,” he said. “To just assume delegates are down there cheering for Trump blindly, I don’t think that’s fact. I think that’s insulting a lot of people who supported Ted Cruz,” Anderson said.

Anderson was an early Cruz endorser; Fenestra backed Cruz after his first choice, Walker, dropped out of the race.

All of the people tsk-tsking Cruz for having “no class” and not falling in line behind the nominee are missing the point. Granted, Cruz is an “odious weasel” and “the biggest dick in the room.” He hasn’t tried to make himself popular with the Republican establishment since getting elected to the Senate four years ago, and he’s not about to start now. His brand is thumbing his nose at the establishment, and in winning the Iowa caucuses amid record Republican turnout, Cruz showed a lot of conservatives are buying what he’s selling.

Right now, Cruz has a different agenda from that of Republicans who are trying to salvage something from Trump’s candidacy. Brian Beutler put it well:

Trump-skeptical Republicans have been despondent about the state of their party and their prospects for victory in 2016 for months now. It was no secret as the party convened in Cleveland that ambitious GOP up-and-comers would use the convention as a platform to increase their own profiles ahead of 2020, while also hedging their bets and endorsing Trump, in case he somehow wins in November.

Cruz was up to something different altogether. Like the other ambitious speakers, Cruz is still eyeing the presidency. Unlike any other speaker, though, Cruz enjoys the tacit support of a huge minority of assembled delegates. Many of them are Cruz people at bottom, and regret that Cruz isn’t the GOP nominee today. And so rather than hedge like others did, Cruz made a career-defining bet, not just that Trump will lose, but that Trump will lose badly. […]

Intuitively speaking, picking a fight with a plurality of the Republican electorate doesn’t make much sense. It’s why people like Marco Rubio, who is famous for engaging in the most expedient form of politics, held their noses and spoke positively on Trump’s behalf: If Trump wins, their place in the party is secure. If he loses, they haven’t alienated the base.

But that thinking only works if Trump loses narrowly, and his faction is still incumbent, still ascendant, still the party’s future; that is, if Republicans don’t collapse into recriminations, and tell themselves their failure was some kind of fluke. But what if they respond to defeat by descending into disarray, hungry for a new direction—perhaps a direction where they don’t strategically foment anti-gay, anti-Muslim animus? Cruz’s bet is that the party will process a third straight presidential election defeat, and possibly a landslide, as a repudiation of Trumpism. Amid the rubble, Cruz will emerge as the leader of chaste conservatives who didn’t abase themselves by acquiescing to Trump. He will have an immediate leg up on Rubio and Paul Ryan and every other potential post-Trump savior who submitted to Trump this week.

Iowa Republican commentator Craig Robinson, whose direct mail firm did work for the Trump campaign before the caucuses, is among those who believe Cruz made a big mistake, which will cost him in the next presidential race. Robinson even predicted Cruz will one day claim to have endorsed Trump.

I doubt that very much.

Trump is manifestly unfit to lead the country. That’s why only one of the last five GOP presidential nominees (Bob Dole) showed up in Cleveland.

That’s why it passed for a big scoop yesterday when South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told an MSNBC reporter she would vote for her own party’s presidential candidate.

It’s why Ohio Governor John Kasich, who may be the only sitting governor in history to avoid attending the national convention of his own party in his own state, got a standing ovation walking into an Ohio GOP breakfast this morning. Kasich told the attendees, “After last night, I think you can understand why I didn’t speak” at the convention, adding, “I have no regrets about what I’ve done in my political career… I look in the mirror – I feel good about myself.”

When the dust settles, the Republicans who went all-in for Trump, like Iowa’s Senator Joni Ernst, will probably feel more embarrassed by their conduct this week than Cruz ever will.

Look at Wisconsin Governor Walker. The onetime front-runner for the GOP nomination repeatedly denounced Trump as his own campaign fizzled out. He endorsed Cruz before the Wisconsin primary and flirted with the #NeverTrump movement after Cruz had left the race. Yet there he was Wednesday night, delivering a generic mash-up of attacks on Hillary Clinton and praise for Trump. John Nichols recapped the “Horrible Humbling of Scott Walker” in this post for The Nation.

Rubio tried to have it both ways, sending a 90-second video instead of showing up to convey this unity message in person.

If Trump implodes, Rubio’s not going to get any more credit for staying away from Cleveland than Walker will for playing loyal supporter.

In contrast, Cruz will be able to say he stood on principle.

Well, almost–the scourge of the establishment did try to show up at megadonor Sheldon Adelson’s after-party last night, only to get turned away. I guess even in Ted Cruz’s world, not all bridges are made to be burned.

Any comments about this presidential campaign or 2020 prospects are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: The Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Todd Dorman talked to other Iowans in Cleveland:

“He was my guy,” said Iowa delegate David Chung, of Cedar Rapids, who originally backed Cruz but now supports Trump. He hoped Cruz would do the same and honor his pledge to endorse the nominee.

“But he didn’t keep his pledge,” Chung said. “Disappointed is the kindest way I can put it.

“Ted Cruz had an opportunity to be a statesman,” Chung said. […]

“I think he missed a golden opportunity. I really do,” [state GOP chair Jeff] Kaufmann said. “All I see is downside.

“You don’t get a lot of moments like that in life. He gave up the best moment. But that’s not the only moment,” Kaufmann said.

SECOND UPDATE: Representative Steve King, Cruz’s leading Iowa surrogate before the caucuses, spoke to WHO Radio’s Simon Conway on July 21. Buzzfeed’s Christopher Massie transcribed the relevant portion:

“But when he got to the point when he said, ‘Vote your conscience, vote it up and down the ticket.’ Then, he needed to say, ‘My conscience tells me to vote for Donald Trump. I’ll be doing that. And I’m asking you to vote your conscience.” […]

“By the way, I have to say though that the Trump supporters in that crowd were not very gracious about this either,” he said. “And that made it a lot worse. If they’d have just sat there and let that happen—there’s damage done to the Trump campaign and to Cruz.”

No question, the howls from Trump supporters only called greater attention to the Cruz snub. Josh Marshall’s reflections on why the Trump campaign allowed these scene to play out are worth a read.

On Friday morning, the GOP nominee inexplicably wasted time during a campaign stop with Pence taking shots at Cruz. Trump should be moving forward, but he kept his vanquished rival in the news cycle for another day. Cruz didn’t tap into Republican resentments as skillfully as Trump did during the primaries, but he is a much better strategic thinker.

top image: screen shot from PBS News Hour video of Ted Cruz

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