Everyone tuning in to Senator Ted Cruz's speech at the Republican National Convention Wednesday night ended up watching more than they bargained for. They didn't just witness a speech, they witnessed a stunningly clear case of political suicide.
Cruz's speech delineated conservative philosophies and principles and did plenty to sharply attack and demonize Hillary Clinton. But by not endorsing Donald Trump for president, he deeply angered much of the convention audience that erupted into angry chants of "endorse Trump!"
Cruz was clearly trying to stay as independent of the GOP ticket as he possibly could without refusing to speak or joining his fellow former Republican presidential candidate John Kasich in not attending the convention at all. But he also failed to do anything to achieve the convention's two main goals: Uniting the party leaders and humanizing Trump. And in so doing, Cruz's self-serving act will forever separate himself from his own party and leave him with no real support for any national or possibly even statewide election ever again.
Cruz's decision was an avoidable case of political suicide. The first and most obvious reason being that his party has nominated Trump for the simple reason that he won an historic series of Republican primaries. A weak attempt to still deny Trump the nomination had already failed on the convention floor more than 48 hours before Cruz took the convention stage. In other words, he should have known bucking this trend was hopeless. While Cruz, his supporters, and of course Hillary Clinton's backers are likely to depict his choice to spurn Trump as being courageous and virtuous, the reality is it was just plain quixotic.
The other reason why his speech was basically self-immolating was because it focused way too much on grand ideas and political ethos in the midst of an election that's become less and less about facts and policies and more and more about emotions than usual. Anyone who thinks this is an election of ideas, as House Speaker Paul Ryan haplessly said at the convention on Tuesday, has somehow missed the one fact that truly matters: Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have won their parties' nominations in spite of the facts and each of their long documented records of disregarding or at least embellishing the truth. Many of us who revel in discussions about political theory and philosophy liked a lot of Cruz's speech. But there's not really enough of us to tip an election for dog catcher. That's why Trump endorsement or no Trump endorsement, Cruz's speech was particularly tone deaf.
So now you have to ask the question: Why did Cruz make this mistake? He's certainly not stupid, so where did he go wrong? Interestingly enough, the best answer inadvertently came during Vice Presidential nominee Mike Pence's speech a little later in the evening. Pence became the first national Republican leader to speak about who really is supporting Donald Trump in this election. It's the hourly wage workers, most of whom have borne the brunt of 40+ plus years of no real wage growth in America. These are the new voters who flocked to the GOP this winter and spring to vote in primaries for the first time. And they did it to vote for Trump, who they see as just the kind of volatile person to truly shake up a status quo that's left them out of the economic prosperity the salaried and investment classes have enjoyed and the increasingly generous safety net the unemployed and minimum-wage earning class has received.
Pence made the most important statement of the night when he said Democrats and the news media really don't understand Trump's appeal to those voters. Ted Cruz, who went to college at Princeton before becoming a standout student at Harvard Law School, certainly does not understand Trump's appeal either. He fails at that because as much as he may think he's the polar opposite of liberal elites like Hillary Clinton, people like Cruz have much more in common with their fellow Ivy-educated and well-connected political leaders even though they may not be in the same party. Cruz doesn't get the core Trump voters because, like just about everyone else in the political class or the news media, he really doesn't know any of them. That unfamiliarity cost Cruz last night and it will most likely cost him his political future.
There is really only one possible reprieve for Cruz, and that would be a landslide loss for Trump in November. In that case, Cruz would look prescient for distancing himself from an electoral disaster. But the polls are showing almost no chance for that outcome right now. A close Trump loss would send thousands of Republicans to Cruz's doorstep accusing him of playing a major role in delivering the White House to Hillary Clinton. A Trump win of any kind will now be an even worse-case scenario, as it would make Cruz look both conniving and stupid. And the fact that Cruz did include a call for all conservatives to still go out and vote in November really came off as a weak hedge of a statement that Cruz may try to use in his defense when he's inevitably accused of hurting all of the GOP candidates down the line. This is a case of being too clever by half.
Yes, Ted Cruz is a brilliant and smart man. He's too smart for his own political good.