Night three at the GOP convention

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last night should have belonged to Gov. Mike Pence, whose speech accepting the nomination for the Republican Party for the vice presidency concluded the evening's festivities. But, in a truly stunning show of public pique, the principal newsmaker was Sen. Ted Cruz who refused to endorse Donald Trump and, consequently, was being booed by the audience as his speech reached its finish. Mr. Trump promised us he did not want a boring convention. He got his wish.

Cruz has made a career out of thumbing his nose at the political expectations of the establishment. Of course, Trump is not of the political establishment and co-opted Cruz's anti-establishment lane, not with arch-conservative principles as Cruz intended but on sheer force of personality. It must gall Cruz down to his toenails. Still, common manners dictate that when you go to someone else's party, you do not insult the host.

"Don't stay home in November," Cruz said to the arena full of Trump's most ardent supporters, to whom the thought of staying home in November had not previously crossed their mind. They knew something was off and listened for the other shoe to drop, which it did. "If you love our country and love your children as much as I know that you do, stand and speak, and vote your conscience." Not vote for Donald Trump. The boos began. Chants of "honor the pledge" recalled to Cruz and his supporters that he and all the other candidates had pledged to support the eventual nominee. Mrs. Cruz has to be escorted from the hall by security as people jeered her. Not boring at all.

The rest of Cruz's speech sounded little different from his stump speech: "America is an idea: Freedom Matters"; and "We the people constrain government"; and "People are rightly furious with politicians who break their promises and do not do the people's will." As for this last comment, he seems to forget that Barack Obama was twice elected to his office too. And, as for the first two quotes, it is the most defining characteristic of a modern conservative that they take a complex event like the founding of the American republic, and turn into contemporary bumper stickers. This kind of talk might work on Fox News, but it would be flunked in a fifth grade U.S. history class. No one misunderstands the American founding more than Cruz. What about Trump, you ask? He doesn't understand it at all.

Newt Gingrich added an ad lib to his speech, trying to throw Cruz a life jacket, but it was too late. He suggested that when Cruz said we should all vote for someone who would honor the Constitution, that could only mean Trump. No one was buying: The network anchors had already focused on the booing and jeers that Cruz had elicited. The morning headlines about disunity were set. Conservatives who think like Cruz may or may not turn out for Hillary, but if Trump tries and appeals to them at this stage of the game, he risks losing moderate and centrist voters, and vice versa. The rest of Newt's speech indicated that, having failed to get Trump to nominate him for Veep, he is now auditioning to replace Rudy Giuliani as scaremonger-in-chief.

Trump's son Eric, like his siblings, communicates a greater sense of grievance than filthy rich people should be permitted. He also followed the pattern of his other siblings and his step-mother, and the other speakers, in what may be the greatest lost opportunity of the convention. In this morning's Washington Post, Philip Rucker hits the nail on the head which I only grazed when writing about Melania Trump's speech: The testimonials assert Trump is a good guy and very smart and very caring, etc., but there are not stories to back it up, the people who know him best do not explain why or how he is so generous and kind. Stories stick in the memory. Again, we are seeing the amateurishness of the Trump effort, which doesn't mean he can't win, but does mean he keeps swinging and missing and the convention is the last time he will know in advance that there is a slow pitch over the plate coming his way. (I had mistakenly typed in "putsch" instead of "pitch." That kind of word association seems to happen more often these days.) You see, the problem is not only that they are missing the opportunity to deliver some memorable stories. The deeper problem is that they think it is enough to assert. In this, the children ape the father. But, this is not a democratic, with a small "d" trait. It should scare the living daylights out of you that he and the people who surround him think no explanation is necessary. 

Finally Pence arrived at the rostrum and delivered a classic political speech, which was almost refreshing after hearing from all the B actors and actresses and family members of the Donald. He graciously asked for applause as he introduced his mom and his wife and his kids. He delivered some self-deprecating lines about how Trump has a big personality and boatloads of charisma and that Pence is there to "balance the ticket." He tried to convince the crowd, both in the hall and at home, that in this election GOP equals conservative and conservative equals Trump, a case that would have been more convincing if Cruz had played along. And, he framed the election as a choice between change with Trump or the status quo with Hillary Clinton, which is the best way for the Republicans to frame it.

Then, he overstepped. Pence was not the first person to recall the attack in Benghazi and then criticize Clinton for saying during congressional testimony during a hearing on what went wrong, "What difference at this point does it make?" But, he was the most prominent and if he was trying to appear like the adult in the room, be should have found other ways to criticize her besides pulling a quote out of context, and twisting it to make her appear to indifferent to the lives lost, when in fact she was expressing her disgust at the line of questioning to which she was exposed during 11 hours of testimony, nearly all of it beating back conspiracy theories. Glenn Kessler, the fact checker for The Washington Post, picked up on this line today also, and he is no fan of Mrs. Clinton's. And, outside of the Fox News ideology bubble, most people think Clinton's marathon testimony that day showed some of the toughness they want in a president, so it may be a mistake to keep recalling it from the stage at the convention.

I do not tweet, although my colleagues at the home office kindly tweet out my posts. I do not usually use the verb "trending." Still, I am guessing that "air kiss" was trending last night after Trump appeared on stage at the conclusion of Pence's speech and gave him a rather awkward air kiss. They did not hug. Trump did not stay on the stage long. He gave the thumbs up and pointed at Pence as if to say "He's my guy." It wasn't awful, it certainly was unscripted, but it was also kind of weird, and when planning a convention, I don't think weird is what you are after.

We will see what happens tonight, but so far Team Trump cannot run a four-day convention. And he wants us to let him run the country for four years?

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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