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RNC night 3: Cruz’s astonishing political striptease and Pence’s excellent debut

I call it an elaborate striptease because at several points during his remarks Cruz seemed to almost endorse or seemed about to endorse.

Sen. Ted Cruz speaking during the third night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

If you’ve paid any attention to politics last night or this morning, you know that Sen. Ted Cruz pulled an impressive stunt last night that will alienate – seriously and perhaps permanently – the Cruz and Trump wings of the Republican electorate.

In case you don’t know about it yet, Cruz – the last man standing against Donald Trump in the race for the Republican presidential nomination – was given a prime-time speaking slot at the convention last night. Cruz, despite an elaborate striptease, did not endorse Trump for president or encourage his supporters to vote for Trump.

I call it an elaborate striptease because at several points during his remarks Cruz seemed to almost endorse or seemed about to endorse. He said, right at the top of his remarks: “I congratulate Donald Trump on winning the nomination.” But that’s not the same as endorsing Trump or asking Cruz supporters to vote for Trump. And it turned out to be the only time he mentioned Trump’s name. He later said:

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.

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But, pointedly, he did not specify that Trump fit that description.

As Trump fans in the overwhelmingly pro-Trump audience started interrupting Cruz with chants of “En-Dorse Trump. En-Dorse Trump.” Cruz ad libbed: “I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation” (perhaps an insult, by implying that only the New Yorkers cared whether Cruz endorsed Trump). There was getting to be a lot of booing.

A display of take-chargeness

Trump decided to end the striptease and showed up, visible at the back of the room, while Cruz was still speaking. As a display of take-chargeness, Trump decided to walk up and take over the stage, without waiting to be intoduced. Cruz was about finished anyway. The booing was getting loud, but it wasn’t clear whether it might have mixed with some cheers as well. Bear in mind, there were plenty of Cruz delegates at the convention, who may not yet have fully embraced their Trumpian fate.

A few things you should know. Cruz had noted publicly to the media in advance that he had not promised to endorse Trump in exchange for getting a speaking slot at the convention. Cruz, who has perhaps the furthest right ideologically of any of the Republican candidates, probably doesn’t view Trump – whose policy views have roamed all over the ideological map – as a true conservative. (Perhaps the verbiage above encouraging everyone to “vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution” was meant to imply that this was a group that didn’t necessarily include Trump.)

Cruz was also deeply and understandably bitter over personal attacks Trump had made on Cruz’s wife’s looks and on Cruz’s father, whom Trump implied might have been involved with Lee Harvey Oswald in the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy.

Trump loyalists who criticized Cruz after the incident pointed out the Cruz was among the Republican candidates who had publicly pledged to support the eventual nominee, so on that basis he may have been breaking his word. Michael Cohen, an executive with Trump’s company, said on CNN afterwards that Cruz (whom he called “a baby”) had committed “political suicide” and “should not be allowed to run for dogcatcher” in the future.

Winner or loser?

Other analysts speaking after the incident suggested that Cruz expected Trump to lose the election this year and specifically had his own political future in mind, believing that Trump would be a political disaster for the Repubs and that he, Cruz, would be among the frontrunners for the 2020 nomination. The Washington Post feature “The Fix,” in its “winners and losers” rankings for the evening, listed Cruz as a winner (if Trump loses the election) and a loser (if Trump wins).

I don’t know which of these theories, if any, is correct. It was just an astonishing development to see live on the air during a convention where everything nowadays is supposed to be planned and choreographed. New York Times columnist David Brooks, who was commenting for PBS’ coverage of the evening, said it was the first time in modern history that the runner-up for a major-party presidential nomination had declined to endorse the nominee. Liberal CNN commentator Van Jones described the events as “a zoo on top of a circus inside of a sideshow inside of a car crash.” That one cracked me up.

Someday, maybe we’ll figure out if it had any actual impact, or maybe we won’t. On the PBS panel, syndicated columnist Mark Shields disagreed with Brooks about how big of a deal it was. He felt the national debut of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as Trump’s running-mate was a bigger deal.

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I don’t claim to know which was a bigger deal. But I do agree with the general sense of the commentariat that Pence made an excellent debut. He struck me as a much better public speaker than any of the presidential candidates in either party this year.

Aw-shucks style worked great

He’s a nice-looking man, with really great short white hair. He has an aw-shucks speaking style that worked great. He introduced his sweet-looking octogenarian mother, Nancy, calling her “the light of my life” — which was slightly awkward since Pence’s wife was also sitting right there, but she didn’t seem to mind. He said, “The most important job I’ll ever have in my life is spelled D.A.D.” In a political scene dominated by the not-particularly-humble Mr. Trump, Pence’s self-deprecating style was a tonic.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaking at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night.

A running mate often has to play the attack dog for the ticket. With Mr. Trump in the picture, that shouldn’t be necessary, but Pence was effective without being anywhere near as obnoxious. Here’s a taste, in which he riffed on the idea that Trump is a brash outsider who will shake up Washington, while Hillary Clinton …

If the idea was to present the exact opposite of a political outsider and an uncalculating truth-teller, then you gotta hand it to the Democratic establishment, they outdid themselves this time. At the exact moment when America is crying out for something new and different, the other side has answered with a stale agenda and the most predictable of names. People in both parties are restless for change, ready to break free of old patterns in Washington and the Democrats are about to nominate someone who represents everything this country is tired of. Y’know, Hillary Clinton wants a new title and I would too, if I was already America’s Secretary of the Status Quo.

(The Republican audience liked that so much that they responded with their favorite bloodthirsty cry of “Lock her up. Lock her up.”)

Pence’s affable shtick was better than his attack mode, but the crowd liked both and interrupted his speech with a (presumably, or purportedly) spontaneous chant of “We Like Mike. We Like Mike.”