Ted Cruz's Gamble

By allowing Ted Cruz to speak without an assured endorsement, Donald Trump took a gamble with his convention. By refusing to endorse the nominee of his party, Cruz took a gamble with his political future.

Trump lost his gamble when Cruz’s speech ended with boos and bad feelings as the audience realized Cruz would do no more than urge them to “vote your conscience” and would not endorse the candidate who soundly defeated him for the Republican nomination.

Cruz’s gamble is longer term. No one will know whether he won or lost until a few years from now.

All day Wednesday, across the sprawling convention complex here in Cleveland, Republicans guessed about what Cruz would do. Would he endorse? Would he come up with some clever way to appear to endorse without actually endorsing? Would he flat-out refuse to endorse?

People close to Cruz, who would normally know what is going on, who had talked to him in the last few hours, said they had no idea what he would do. Party leaders didn’t know, either. Neither did Team Trump, although some officials later said they had an early heads up.

Trump’s gamble started weeks ago, when he met with Senate Republicans in Washington. Meeting privately with Cruz, Trump offered him a speaking spot at the convention without first securing a commitment from Cruz that he would endorse Trump. The idea was that Cruz would come around by the time he got to Cleveland.

Wrong. After congratulating Trump for winning the nomination, Cruz urged the crowd, and millions watching on TV, “If you love our country, stand and speak and vote your conscience. Vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend freedom and be faithful to the Constitution.”

Anyone who has listened to Cruz in his anti-Trump phase (as opposed to his earlier pro-Trump phase) knows that Cruz does not believe Trump will be faithful to the Constitution. It was an absolute refusal to support the rival who beat Cruz by nearly 1,000 delegates.

Earlier in the day, Republican insiders, many of them quite favorable to Cruz, could not really wrap their minds around the idea of Cruz refusing to endorse. Even Cruz supporters argued that most Republicans have united behind Trump, whether he was their first choice or not, and they will not look kindly on a losing candidate who refuses to endorse the choice of his party’s voters.

One insider said supporting Trump would be a “necessary condition” for Cruz to have a future in Republican presidential politics. That was especially true, he said, because Cruz signed a pledge to support the GOP nominee.

The upside of Cruz’s gamble is that in one brief appearance, he won the intensified support of those Republicans who cannot reconcile themselves to Trump. And, if Trump goes down to defeat in November ??? and it’s safe to say everyone in that group believes he will ??? Cruz will have serious I-told-you-so cred. Then, the theory goes, he will be in a strong position to put the party back together and run in 2020.

It will take a while to see if things work out that way.

Earlier in the evening, radio host Laura Ingraham roused the crowd with a fiery and compelling pro-Trump speech. Midway through, she specifically addressed Cruz and the other candidates who fell short in the primaries.

“I want to say this very plainly,” Ingraham said. “We should all, even all you boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos ??? and we love you, we love you ??? but you must honor your pledge to support Donald Trump now! Tonight.”

As the audience broke into raucous applause, Ingraham added: “I hope they’re listening to you. I hope they are listening.”

They weren’t, or at least Cruz wasn’t.

The scene irritated the still-raw feelings of some veterans of the 2016 GOP race. Veteran Republican strategist Curt Anderson, who ran Bobby Jindal’s campaign, saw in Cruz’s action far more calculation than principle, recalling the days when Cruz expressed admiration and affection for Trump.

“No one did more to create Donald Trump than Ted Cruz did,” Anderson wrote in an email shortly after Cruz’s speech. “While others were attempting to stop Trump, Cruz was complimenting him and sucking up to him. It was a political calculation that failed. Everything he does is a political calculation. Tonight he calculated that not endorsing the Republican nominee will be good for him. That will be another failed calculation, no matter whether Trump wins or loses in the fall.”

Anderson was by no means alone in that feeling. Talking to attendees leaving the hall Wednesday night, most were unhappy with Cruz’s performance. They didn’t like the fact that Cruz would not fall in line behind his party’s choice, and they could not understand his decision in light of their strong belief that the country has gone downhill fast under President Obama and will continue unless Hillary Clinton is stopped.

It’s too early to tell if Cruz’s calculation is right. But it’s not too early to say that Wednesday night, the night that featured GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, Trump’s son Eric, and Newt Gingrich ??? a night that was supposed to build on the Trump convention’s improved performance Tuesday night ??? ended in something close to shambles.

Shortly after Cruz left the stage, some television newspeople near me rose to do standups to lead their local news. One was clearly gobsmacked by what we had just seen. He looked into the camera and began, “Folks, this is a very strange, strange evening.” And indeed it was.