Only time will tell whether Ted Cruz’s Wednesday night speech at the Republican National Convention was one of the best or worst moments of his political career.
Not only was Cruz booed off the stage in Cleveland, but his wife was whisked away by security as Donald Trump supporters began to heckle her before the senator had even finished his speech to the party. It quickly became the biggest story of the night, overshadowing what was supposed to be the primetime debut of Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Trump’s relatively obscure pick for VP. CNN awkwardly declared that Cruz had “sensationally withheld” his endorsement of Trump, a reminder that Cruz shares Trump’s uncanny ability to harness controversy to highjack the news cycle.
It was always unlikely that Cruz, who has built a political career off being the bomb-thrower of his party, would play nice on the convention stage, not after a bitter primary battle that devolved to the point where Trump had begun to suggest Cruz’s father had something to do with the President Kennedy assassination. But as the New York Times puts it, Cruz “has all but declared that he wants to run for president again in 2020," so maybe he’s betting that buyer’s remorse will kick in sooner or later.
Which might also explain why the Tea Party senator’s speech Wednesday night struck somewhat of a different tone, at least at first, than the typical Cruz scorcher. Much of the first half seemed geared toward calming anyone in the party royally freaked by Trump’s rise within the GOP. “Like you, I want to see the principles that our party believes in prevail in November,” he said before running through a list of bread-and-butter conservative causes that didn't include tracking down and forcing all Muslims to register in a national database. When Cruz talked about religious freedom, he even added this very surprising line: “Whether you are gay or straight, the bill of rights protects the rights of all of us to live according to our conscience.”
But whatever tone he was aiming for, somewhere around the time Cruz began to beg citizens not to stay home in November, the crowd of delegates before him started to grow impatient. While some chanted “Vote for Trump!" others just yelled “say it!” Cruz grinned and kept plugging away at his speech, urging voters to "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.”
Things went downhill quickly, and eventually this smarmy retort slid out of Cruz’s mouth: “I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation.” As the booing got louder, Cruz’s speech veered toward lecture as he told anyone who was still listening that the GOP must work hard to bring in wary voters.
That could be even more difficult for the party now that Cruz has highlighted the deep divisions that still exist within the GOP in the Trump Era. The question is whether Cruz effectively boot-stomped any chance of party unity Wednesday night because he’s eyeing some long game. Or maybe the bomb-thrower finally wants to just sit back watch his party burn.