No one really knew what to expect from his speech on Wednesday night. Cruz had sent signals that he had no intention to endorse, but many close to Trump, like Paul Manafort, who said he expected the speech would be “pleasing,” believed he would give an endorsement in everything but name. Many, myself included, expected him to get close to Trump, but not too close, and to treat his speech as a very early curtain raiser to the 2020 campaign we all know is coming.
When Cruz stepped on stage, it seemed like he was going to give the “pleasing” speech. For over ten minutes, he talked broadly about freedom, attacked Hillary Clinton, and endorsed a border wall. But that only made his call for Republicans to vote their conscience all the more shocking.
The text Cruz was reading at this moment is not particularly notable. But Cruz’s delivery was pure theater—he savored the moment and leaned into it and wanted no one to miss the subtext, which was that a conservative with a conscience could not vote for Donald Trump. That Donald Trump walked onto the floor during Cruz’s speech to join his clearly unhappy family only made the division more pronounced.
Still, that “conscience” line didn’t quite jibe with the rest of the speech, which was about Cruz’s broad ideological agreements with Trump. But that’s because, for Cruz, the speech wasn’t about ideology, it was personal—it was about getting revenge on Trump for calling his wife ugly and accusing his father of helping to assassinate JFK. Cruz said as much this morning:
There’s been a lot of speculation about how Cruz’s speech will affect his chances in 2020, and I doubt that he would have decided to go with his conscience if he didn’t feel that betting against Donald Trump would pay off big time for him in the future. But this seems like a moment when Cruz’s political instincts aligned with his sense of personal resentment. And it worked—Mike Pence gave a pretty good speech on Wednesday night, but no one’s talking about that this morning.