At a typical convention, the party picks a nominee and then people give speeches about why you should vote for that nominee. For all the weirdness of the Trump convention, that basic dynamic held for the first two days of the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Then Ted Cruz brought it all crashing down with a speech that pointedly didn’t endorse Trump. Instead, he talked about conservative principles, fidelity to the Constitution, and the need to vote your conscience. He got booed — and managed to create a moment weirder than a Newt Gingrich speech.
There were also a lot of technical glitches inside the arena, some questionable musical choices, and a night-long theme — "Make America First Again" — cribbed from a decades-old group dedicated to the proposition that the United States shouldn’t fight Hitler. At the end, Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, tied it all up in a bow with his stirring conversion tale to Ronald Reagan conservatism.
Here’s who won and who lost as we turn the page on another grueling day of RNC 2016.
Loser: Donald Trump
Fundamentally, the headline out of this night is that Ted Cruz managed to build up a lot of tension around a "will he or won’t he" endorse Donald Trump story. Then he didn’t endorse Trump. Then he got booed, which turned it into a bigger story.
The point of a convention is to unify the party and send out a unified message. Today’s events simply underscored the extent to which Trump has not yet managed to unify the Republican Party. And it reiterated a negative storyline from day one — Trump can’t manage to do the work to stage a properly organized convention.
Which is a problem, because as hard as organizing a convention is, running the country is much harder.
Loser: Scott Walker
There are 30 Republican governors in the United States. Just three of them (Mike Pence, Chris Christie, and now Rick Scott) have gone all in with Trump in exchange for high-profile roles in a possible Trump administration. Most of the rest have held their distance from Trump on the sensible grounds that there's no particular need to be actively involved in the campaign while Trumpism poses some risks to the GOP’s successful domination of state government.
But then there's Scott Walker. He didn't get an A-list speaking spot, and his speech — bland, ideological, conventionally right-wing — didn't do anything to position himself as either a key Trump ally or a key guy to pick up the pieces if Trump fails.
Mostly all Walker accomplished was to remind the world why his presidential campaign was such a bust — he's way too boring. His effort to become a more dynamic speaker was 50 percent "talk louder" and 50 percent "try to force the crowd into awkward call-and-response chants," and it was honestly laughable.
In the time of Trump, Walker could have turned his plodding earnestness into a virtue by joining the Republican governors of Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio and simply not shown up. He could have diligently, earnestly, and boringly tended to state affairs and appeared above it all. Instead, he covered himself with the stench of opportunism without accomplishing anything useful.
Loser: Marco Rubio
Nobody was more thoroughly humiliated over the course of the Republican primaries this year than Lil’ Marco Rubio. While his ideological fellow traveler Jeb Bush lost in an embarrassing way, Bush at least managed to go out in a dignified way and ended up attracting some (entirely undeserved) praise as an honest and decent man living through troubled times.
Rubio, by contrast, went out making jokes about Donald Trump’s penis before losing his home state in a landslide.
The one piece of good news for him is that Trump’s weaknesses as a candidate made Washington Republicans sufficiently nervous about losing the Senate that they became eager to take Rubio back as a candidate for reelection — even though he said a lot of mean things about the Senate while out on the campaign trail. Rubio said yes, and he’s currently up in the polls thanks to the Democrats’ perpetual inability to recruit credible candidates for statewide office in the Sunshine State.
All Rubio needed to do next was to regain a little dignity by standing by his criticisms of Trump and focusing his attention on Florida. Instead, he endorsed Trump, apologized for the personal attacks, and decided to address the convention. But he somehow convinced himself that endorsing via video rather than in person would let him retain dignity as some kind of half-pregnant Trumper.
Winner: Rick Scott
Florida’s governor did something that would be normal at a typical political convention but has been quite unusual this week — he offered a fulsome endorsement of Donald J. Trump as a candidate for president of the United States.
Trump has gotten his share of endorsements, of course, but they’ve usually come from C-list celebrities, random business associates, and his own children. He’s also had big-time politicians like Mitch McConnell talk about how Hillary Clinton is terrible and thus you should vote for Trump.
But Scott became the only major league politician with a viable career to really stand up there and say, loud and proud, that Trump will be a great president. Sure, Scott conceded, Trump "may be too direct" at times (a nice euphemism), but "we need a president who is politically incorrect and will tell it like it is."
The people loved it! I’m not going to say that praising Trump to the skies specifically on the grounds that he’s willing to say and do racist stuff (err ... "tell it like it is") is a wise thing to do. But honestly, it makes a lot more sense than the typical establishment Republican play of showing up the convention and then acting ashamed about it. If you want to stay away, then stay away. If you want to celebrate Trump, then celebrate Trump.
Winner: Mike Pence
Two weeks ago, Pence was facing a pretty decent chance of a humiliating loss in his reelection bid in Indiana. He was not a particularly well-respected man in movement or party circles, having been drastically overtaken by Paul Ryan on Capitol Hill and consistently overshadowed by his term-limited predecessor, Mitch Daniels, as the intellectual driving force behind Indiana Republicans.
Now he might be vice president!
And whatever else you might say about Pence, he’s definitely a pretty normal politician who gets up in the morning, does boring politician stuff, and only says crazy things when they line up with well-established party dogma. That means the easy way out for GOP elected officials around the country looking to say nice things about Trump is to lavish some praise on the bottom of the ticket. From loser and potential has-been, Pence has been elevated rapidly to unifying figure in the GOP.
My prediction that Pence would be the GOP’s nominee in 2016 hasn’t panned out, but I’ve got my fingers crossed for 2020.
Winner: Ted Cruz
This is not well-known to normal people to whom many of Donald Trump’s statements sound extreme, but in professional Republican Party circles, a big knock on Trump is that he’s not authentically conservative. He hasn’t done time in conservative policy institutions, and he doesn’t know the magic catchphrases and ideological hang-ups. That’s one reason his convention has spent so much time on Benghazi conspiracies and other talk radio topics that aren’t about policy or ideology.
That sets the table relatively nicely for Ted Cruz — fresh from facing down a chorus of boos — to run in 2020 as the voice of real conservatives looking to take back their party from the failed big-city East Coast squishiness of Trump.
Tonight, Cruz walked an odd line. He spoke at Donald Trump’s convention. He urged his followers to stay in the fight. But he didn’t "endorse" Trump. He called on his supporters to fight for conservative principles. And a chorus of boos and heckles led by the New York delegation turned a potentially awkward momentum into a high-profile blowup. It made for a weird moment for Cruz, but it hurt Trump’s short-term cause — winning an election in November — much more than it hurts Cruz.
After all, if Trump loses and recriminations break out, Cruz is well-positioned to say he did what he could to rally conservatives to keep Clinton out of the White House — but that he also never said Trump and Trumpism were a good idea. It’s pretty slick.
Winner: People who think Hillary should be imprisoned rather than shot
Chants of "lock her up" rang out in the convention hall Wednesday night — much as they had on Tuesday night — as part of the Republican Party’s growing conviction that FBI Director James Comey is part of some vast and inexplicable conspiracy to cover up evidence of criminal misconduct that is clearly visible to conservative talk radio hosts even if career federal prosecutors don’t see it.
But when New Hampshire state Sen. Al Baldasaro, a Trump campaign adviser on veterans’ issues, told a talk radio show that Clinton should be shot dead by a firing squad on treason charges and then reiterated that he really means it, Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks said, "No, of course Mr. Trump does not feel this way."
With those sage words, Trump brilliantly pivoted to the safe middle ground and brought the Republican Party together.