CLEVELAND – Ted Cruz knows exactly what he’s doing. On Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention, Cruz walked onto the stage in Cleveland to thunderous applause, smiled, waved, and then openly defied the Republican Party.
Not only did Cruz fail to endorse Donald Trump, in a master stroke of rhetorical understatement he also implored Republicans to “vote your conscience” in November. It was all he needed to say.
Cruz uttered the name of the GOP nominee only once, right at the beginning. “I congratulate Donald Trump on winning the nomination last night,” Cruz told the crowd.
That was it. The very next thing he said was a rhetorical shot across Trump’s bow: “I want to see the principles of our party prevail in November.”
For the rest of his remarks, Cruz’s theme was freedom—not Trump or party unity or even Hillary Clinton. He took up his theme by talking about something he’s been talking about for years: the frustrations of average Americans with what Cruz calls the “Washington cartel.” Recall that early in the primaries, Cruz made common cause with Trump as an outsider candidate, lambasting not just the Obama administration but also a Republican establishment he said was woefully out of step with ordinary Americans.
“Voters are overwhelmingly rejecting big government,” he said. “That’s a profound victory. People are fed up with politicians who don’t listen to them, fed up with a corrupt system that benefits the elites, instead of working men and women.”
He lambasted a “political establishment that cynically breaks its promises and ignores the will or the people,” a shot aimed not just at the Obama administration, but at his GOP establishment rivals in Congress.
But it was clear, to those who have ears to hear, that Cruz was not making a case for Trump. “We’re fighting not for a particular candidate or campaign,” he said. Americans deserves leaders who “stand for principles” and “shared values.”
The closest Cruz came to an endorsement of anyone was a plea for the beleaguered down-ballot Republicans who in many places across the country face tough odds in November with Trump at the top of the GOP ticket.
“To those listening, please, don’t stay home in November,” he said. “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.”
At this, the crowd stirred in discontent. Heckling broke out in some quarters. Boos could be heard behind the applause. Cruz was unfazed. As he closed, the volume in the stadium kept rising, equal parts applause and booing. Some were aghast, others elated as it dawned on everyone that Cruz was going to finish without endorsing Trump, and that he had appealed to the delegates and voters at home to “vote your conscience.”
Then Cruz smiled, waved, and walked off the stage. He knew exactly what he was doing.