It didn’t have to be a complete disaster.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) didn’t say a negative thing about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Cleveland on Wednesday night. A savvy, disciplined campaign could have used the three words from Cruz that set off a political firestorm — “vote your conscience” — to the campaign’s advantage.
As it turns out, “vote your conscience” wasn’t just a line in a speech. It was a Rorschach test, and the Trump campaign failed miserably.
But before we examine how the Trump campaign could have responded without making an even bigger mess of things, let’s first look at what Cruz actually said during his speech:
We deserve leaders who stand for principle. Unite us all behind shared values. Cast aside anger for love. That is the standard we should expect, from everybody.
And to those listening, please, don’t stay home in November. 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.
“Vote your conscience” could easily be interpreted two ways. People who refuse to vote for Trump could view it as a blessing for them to vote for Republicans down-ticket while refusing to vote for Trump at the top. People who support Trump and believe that he will be “faithful to the Constitution” could view it as an endorsement of Trump’s platform.
The very deliberate wording of Cruz’s line made it entirely possible for both factions to read it and listen to it and come away with something positive. Granted, it’s also obviously possible to read Cruz’s words, as most people did, as a deliberate attack on Trump for lacking principle, lacking shared values, and lacking a desire to faithfully defend the Constitution.
This, however, is politics. And in politics, especially mid-convention, presidential election-year politics, you make lemons out of lemonade. The Trump campaign had two options. It could’ve gone on television and crowed that Cruz’s speech was the most delicious lemonade you could possibly imagine. Or it could’ve opened up the wound Cruz caused and squirted lemon juice on it.
The only sensible Trump response to “vote your conscience” and “vote for freedom and candidates with principles” was to thank Cruz for the rousing speech and his commitment to conservative principles. Praise him for his defense of freedom, and then turn his call to “vote your conscience” into an endorsement of Trump’s agenda. After all, there’s only one candidate in the race who wants to put America first, there’s only one candidate who wants to keep America safe, there’s only one candidate who has what it takes to Make America Great Again. If you believe in restoring American greatness, then your conscience can only tell you one thing: vote Trump. If you believe in restoring the values that made America the greatest in nation in history, then your conscience can only tell you one thing: vote Trump. If you believe that strong leadership and a commitment to the American people are what’s required to keep this country strong, then your conscience can only tell you one thing: vote Trump.
That’s all Trump’s team had to do.
They had hours (an eternity in campaign time), if not days, to prepare for it. They could’ve flooded the zone with surrogates pushing that message. They could’ve worked it into Gingrich’s and Pence’s speeches. If they could spend a week saying that former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski never touched Michelle Fields, that she might have been planning to attack Trump with a bomb hidden inside a ballpoint pen, that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia, Team Trump could’ve spent a couple of hours pretending that “vote your conscience” was an endorsement of Trump’s agenda and a clear denunciation of Hillary Clinton.
The Trump campaign could’ve mitigated the damage. Trump and his campaign staff might’ve even been able to turn the liability Cruz created into a small asset for the campaign.
But they didn’t. Instead of biting their tongues, they took the bait. Two billion dollars in free media can buy a major political party’s presidential nomination, but it unfortunately can’t buy a campaign a lick of discipline or common sense.