I can’t figure them out. Maybe you can.
Question one: Did Team Trump encourage the booing, and if so, why? I made this point myself last night on social media:
People miss this: Last night's mess was Trump's doing, not Cruz's. If the response was polite, this would be a much much smaller story.
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) July 21, 2016
There’s no doubt about it. Cruz obviously did intend to shank Trump by pointedly withholding his endorsement, but that wasn’t news to the Trump campaign. Cruz met with Trump in Washington two weeks ago and they agreed that he should speak at the convention. Notably, an endorsement wasn’t discussed. Cruz himself claims he told Trump personally on the phone three days ago that he wouldn’t endorse. National Review reported that there’d be no endorsement 24 hours before Cruz stepped onstage. Cruz’s prepared remarks, including the now famous “conscience” bit at the end, were circulating among reporters yesterday afternoon, several hours before he spoke. Trump acknowledged late last night that he’d seen Cruz’s speech two hours before it was delivered. After it was over, a source told Ben Shapiro that Paul Manafort had approved the speech at around 4:30 ET. There were no surprises, and as far as I know, at no point did Team Trump ever demand an endorsement as a condition of speaking. Yet they let Cruz go ahead anyway. Why?
My sense was that they were savvy enough to realize that most voters watching the convention don’t follow politics closely and wouldn’t see the same rejectionism in Cruz’s speech that political junkies immediately grasped. So long as Cruz didn’t denounce Trump, the takeaway for the average Joe would be that Trump had been magnanimous in letting his vanquished opponent speak and that Cruz had said some nice things about conservatism and the Constitution at Trump’s big pageant. There would be an illusion of unity. The thunderous boos for Cruz at the end shattered that illusion and upstaged VP nominee Mike Pence. (As Cruz fan Stu Burguiere put it, the booing turned a good speech into a legendary one.) That’d a terrible misfortune for Team Trump if it happened organically since there’s only so much you can do to control an angry crowd. But … what if it didn’t happen organically? What if Team Trump actually orchestrated the booing?
Reporter: Did you all do anything to foster that booing? Or [was] that organic?
Manafort: It must have been organic. [Manafort grins.]
Reporter: You didn’t have people on the floor leading that?
Manafort: Some people think that?
Reporter: Well, you might.
Manafort: [chuckles] No! That’s not the person I know.
Reporter: That’s a pretty big smile, sir.
Manafort: Look, I think the delegates were very disappointed.
Shapiro’s source, a member of Team Cruz, claimed that Trump’s people were encouraging the boos. Two sources told Time magazine the same thing. A delegate from Colorado tweeted, “I was standing in a sea of whippers motioning to turn up the volume with boos.” But why? Why hand the media a piece of video to showcase Republican disunity? Why force the wary Republicans who are weighing whether to back Trump to choose right now between him and Cruz — or rather, between conscience and blind partisan loyalty? Even if you thought Cruz was out of line, how many Republicans are going to base their general election vote on their desire to punish Ted Cruz? To circle back to the first point above, imagine if Team Trump had whispered to the delegates before Cruz’s speech that he should be received politely but tepidly throughout. Modest applause when he walked in, stony silence during the speech, modest applause when he walked out. Political media would have chattered for a few hours about his non-endorsement but then it would have been over with. Cruz’s big “Reagan ’76” speech would have been reduced to an afterthought. Ironically, only Trump himself seemed to have grasped afterward that the wise strategic move was to shrug it off. “No big deal!” he tweeted. Shrewd. And yet Team Trump went the opposite route, turning the end of the speech into the biggest sh*tshow at a convention in decades.
I don’t get it. Some people today are spitballing that it was a buzz-building exercise by the master of hype, Trump, to goose people into turning in to his own speech tonight. Okay, but Trump is hype personified. If ever there was a political event that doesn’t need extra juice, it’s his acceptance speech. My best stab at a theory is that Manafort simply couldn’t resist throwing a punch at a guy who had snubbed his boss even though Trump stands to lose more from it, at least in the short term, than Cruz does. We saw the same thing a few days ago when Manafort smacked Kasich for “embarrassing” his state by skipping the convention and then again when he extended the plagiarism story by blaming Hillary Clinton instead of just saying “Yeah, it was a minor screw-up.” Trump wants and needs a unified party out of this week; above all, he wants people talking about only his own speech tonight in the days ahead. Sabotaging Cruz puts all of that in jeopardy, and for what? To damage a guy who already lost to Trump and endured all sorts of insults to himself and his family in the process? To make it even more absurd, Sean Davis is right that Cruz’s “vote your conscience” plea could have been easily spun by Trump’s campaign as a call to unity (which is how Newt Gingrich tried to spin it). “We agree, voters should vote their conscience. And no one with a conscience could support an elitist globalist crony like Hillary Clinton.” Instead they chose to brawl — with a fellow Republican. Pure idiocy.
Question two: How much damage did Cruz do to himself? His strategy last night was to lay down a marker that he could point back to in 2020 as proof that he’s the true conservative in the race. He’d go to the convention, he’d create the illusion of unity that Trump wanted, he’d refuse to say anything pointedly critical about Trump, but he’d also refuse to endorse. That sort of too-clever calculation is Cruz all over. What he did not expect, I’m sure, is the degree of hostility he faced. Even if most Republicans shrug this off in a week, Trumpists will remember it forever even more bitterly than conservatives remember Christie’s pre-election gladhanding of Obama in 2012. It’s strange to recall now but not so long ago Cruz’s path to the Republican nomination depended upon winning over Trump’s populist voters: Once Trump imploded, the theory went, Cruz would clean up among Trump’s base and march to victory as the anti-establishment choice. That was the whole point of the Cruz/Trump “bromance” last year. It’s also why Cruz strained not to get personal with Trump despite the many months of “Lyin’ Ted” and shots at Heidi Cruz and the nutty JFK thing about his father until, under the strain of looming defeat, Cruz finally snapped during a presser on the morning of the Indiana primary and went off on him for 10 minutes. He put a lot of effort into not writing off Trump’s voters. And now: Gone.
But if he’s no longer in contention for Trump voters in 2020, how does he win? Who’s his base? Sure, he’s got #NeverTrump conservatives in his pocket, but that’s worth maybe 10-15 percent in a primary. To hardcore Trumpers he’s become Emmanuel Goldstein, and even many non-Trumpers are angry with him today for not endorsing the nominee in a big spot. I think Megan McArdle has it right:
That clip of Cruz getting booed by his own party convention is now the highest-profile moment of his career. It will play over and over for the next four years, and possibly beyond. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think of a story I once heard about a politician who had been captured on film being chased by his own angry constituents. Allegedly, the politician asked a staffer when the media would stop playing the clip; allegedly, the staffer replied, “Sir, they’ll play it when you die.”…
I continue to think that the #NeverTrump Republicans are a sizeable group; I don’t think that they are, by themselves, sizeable enough to constitute anyone’s political base. For many other Republicans, this will finally make plausible what that Washington establishment has been saying for months: that Cruz is an opportunist who is willing to badly hurt his own party for the sake of some imagined political advantage. When they make that charge again in 2020, it will have a much more receptive audience.
Matthew Sheffield is right too. Even now, Cruz chronically seems to overestimate how conservative the GOP is. I tweeted last night in the middle of his address that the hosannas to constitutionalism were a fine tribute to the party that exists in his head. He thought he was going to win the nomination this year by consolidating evangelicals until evangelicals broke big for the twice-divorced playboy billionaire from Manhattan. (Cruz lately has been spinning this as an artifact of Trump’s phenomenal media ubiquity, not something that calls into question conservatives’ ideological commitment.) The idea with his convention speech was to give a low-key, carefully worded address that would let both sides of the Trump divide spin his point however they wanted to and then to quietly lie low for the rest of the campaign, after which he could start wooing populists of all stripes for the next election. The explosion of outrage, orchestrated by Manafort, seems to have taken him completely by surprise and wrecked that strategy. How he cobbles together a winning coalition in 2020 after this, with the establishment against him, Trumpists against him, and even some party-loyalist conservatives against him, is beyond my imagination. Manafort did his candidate no favors with the booing, but he may be vindictive enough to have decided that that was a price worth paying in order to score a kill shot to Cruz’s career.
It would not surprise me, in fact, if angry Trumpists and their new best buddies in the RNC try to organize some sort of primary challenge to Cruz in Texas when he runs for Senate reelection. That’s a longshot but yesterday it was a no-shot. Cruz was so busy gaming out 2020 that he may have inadvertently maneuvered himself into having to plan now for 2018. But all of this is in the somewhat distant future. Remember, Trump has been a politician for only 13 months; Cruz will have two years to plot a counterattack. And as a long-term gamble, what he did last night is a cinch to pay off: Trump will either screw up and lose the election or he’ll win and screw up as president, and Cruz will be I-told-you-so-ing everyone he meets. His problem today is that the presidential window for most ambitious politicians doesn’t exist long-term. Cruz has one more run left, which, if unsuccessful, will brand him as a loser who can’t win a national primary forever. What he may have done last night, as a guy known for being willing to play the long game, is to paint himself into a corner in which he has to play a very long game, pushing his presidential hopes back from 2020 to 2024 or beyond. (And even if he wins the nomination, anti-Cruzers will cite “vote your conscience” ad nauseam as a justification not to support him.) I have no doubt that the “conscience” speech will in time be seen as a feather in his cap, maybe even a defining moment. I have a lot of doubt as to when.