American political conventions are supposed to be coronations. They are meant to be choreographed and scripted arrangements to ensure that aspiring presidents can be exhibited on prime time TV to their full advantage. Dull. Nothing about this election season has been routine. And this week in Cleveland has been the craziest of the year so far. Not in the streets around the Quicken Loans Arena, where the doom mongers warned of violent clashes between protesters and supporters of Donald Trump. Instead the drama is playing out day after day inside the convention, which has been remade in the image of its divisive candidate.
Last night was supposed to be Mike Pence’s night as he officially accepted the nomination for vice-president. It was meant to be his chance – as a political heavyweight with a conservative background – to help bring some of the anti-Trumpers back into the fold. Instead the night will be remembered for the exact opposite reasons thanks to Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who dropped out of the Republican race in May. He began strongly enough, provoking warm applause as he referenced Britain’s Brexit vote:
‘We’ve seen it with Brexit. Voters are overwhelmingly rejecting the political establishment and rejecting big government. People are fed up with politicians that don’t listen to them.’
Freddy Gray and Scott McConnell discuss the American tragedy with Isabel Hardman:
But he clearly hadn’t read the memo saying it was for the party to unite around its chosen candidate. And not for the first time, Cruz demonstrated why he is so hated by so many of his party colleagues and has a reputation for thinking only of himself. Even at Trump’s own convention he could bring himself to say the candidate’s name only once. And he very pointedly refused to endorse Trump. ‘Don’t stay home in November,’ was the best he could manage, as he laid out his own conservative creed. ‘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.’
No-one was left in any doubt what he was saying. Cruz was using Trump’s own stage to suggest the Republican candidate was not up to the job. It made for an extraordinarily uncomfortable moment, the very height of bad manners. The audience broke into boos and heckled Cruz’s wife Heidi with calls of ‘Goldman Sachs’ – a reminder that she once worked on Wall Street, making her as much a hate symbol among Trumpers as Hillary Clinton for her connections to high finance.
Trump issued his own very clear rebuke, entering the convention hall with an awkward smile and thumbs up for supporters. It forced TV cameras to cut away from Cruz just as his speech was crescendoing. If one of Trump’s main objectives was to use the convention to unite the party around him, it has not been a great week. Instead Ted Cruz’s calculation is clear. By distancing himself from Trump, who defeated him in the primaries, he is betting on a Republican general election loss and readying himself for his own presidential run in four years time.
So maybe in Cruz’s mind it seemed the heroic thing to do: Enter the lions’ den on prime time TV and defend the core ideals of the Republican Party from an ignorant, loud-mouthed New Yorker. But to anyone watching, it looked like Cruz being Cruz, or an odious man being odious.