What could be more exciting than a vice-presidential acceptance speech by Mike Pence? And how are those dumpster fires looking out there in Nebraska, Sen. Sasse?
Wednesday was the day the Republican convention was supposed to pivot, a popular word in politics this year signifying a turn from hurling brickbats at Hillary to throwing laurels on their own candidate Donald Trump.
The lingering effects of Melania’s plagiarism were dispensed with early in a statement from the Trump Organization (not the Trump campaign) acknowledging that she cribbed whole sections of her speech on Trump family values from Michelle Obama. Never mind that only hours before Paul Manafort was telling reporters the allegations were absurd. Yes, he’s the campaign manager, but only in his own mind.
The mastermind, the wizard himself, tweeted out: “Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press.”
And with that, the scandal was swept into the dustbin like so many shards of broken glass.
Wednesday was losers night, an opportunity for Trump’s vanquished primary opponents — Scott Walker, Newt Gingrich, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — to step forward and kiss his ring. Yet another Trump progeny (Eric) would step forward to extol his father; then Pence, the Indiana governor known for nothing, would wrap it all up with a call for unity.
That’s the way it was supposed to go. But Florida Gov. Rick Scott never got the message. He opened the ceremony with a tribute to the Orlando nightclub victims that quickly became a call to war against radical Islamic terrorism.
“The war is real. It is here in America,” he said. “And the next president must destroy that evil. Donald Trump is that man.”
“Lock Her Up!” the delegates shout, repeating the now familiar chant that has come to characterize Trump gatherings.
Other speakers stepped to the stage, filling out the agenda until the primetime festivities. While they spoke, the cable TV pundits took advantage of the lull to put their own spin on the convention so far.
“You have to agree with nearly all our commentators that what has transpired here amounts to political malpractice,” Brian Williams opined to Michael Murphy, the former Jeb Bush consultant filling the chair opposite him on MSNBC. And Murphy did agree. “They have written the book on how not to run a convention.”
On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly took a different tack. He told a startled Chris Wallace the Republicans were so interesting there was no need to cover the Democrats next week.
“Why cover the Democrats? There’s nothing to cover. It’s all about Hillary,” he said.
“So what is going on here? This is all about Trump,” Wallace snapped back.
“But Trump has to define himself. Hillary is already defined,” O’Reilly continued.
Wallace blanched “Well, I think there are still a few rough edges she has to address.”
Around the middle of the batting order, the Republicans sent a trio of minority speakers to the plate to demonstrate their diversity. (There are only 80 blacks among the 2,473 delegates.) The speakers were a Latino state senator from Kentucky, a fiery black radio preacher from Cleveland and Lynn Patton, a “senior assistant” to the Trump children who runs the Eric Trump Foundation.
Their appearance sparked the most enlightening exchange yet on CNN’s in-studio panel of political partisans. Trump apologist Jeffrey Lord couldn’t hold back his glee when he teased fellow commentator Van Jones, who is black, about the rainbow of colors on stage. “I just want to point out to my friend that is yet another African-American endorsement of Donald Trump.” But Jones was having none of it.
“It’s so amazing,” Jones responded. “African-Americans and Latinos should resonate with this Republican Party. You have an incredible entrepreneurial sector in the black community, in the Latin community. The problem is that this tasty gumbo continues to be ruined by the doggy poop of the xenophobia, the doggy poop of a strident immigrant message that doesn’t distinguish between the good and the bad of our undocumented population.
“And so the tragedy here is that we should have a political party in this room that could compete,” he continued. “But African-American (support) is 0 percent for Trump in Ohio, 0 percent in Pennsylvania. And you have Republicans who have tried very hard to open up this party, but (their work) has been ruined by Donald Trump’s rhetoric, his tone and his temperament.”
Lord stared blankly at Jones as he spoke then buried his head back in his computer.
The Mystery of Ted Cruz
There was always some mystery surrounding what Ted Cruz would say. During the primaries, Trump had insulted his wife, planted false stories about his extramarital affairs in The National Enquirer, linked his father to a plot to assassinate JFK, and freely bandied about his favorite epithet, Lyin’ Ted Cruz.
The Texas senator, in turn, struck back, calling Trump “a sniveling coward,” “a pathological liar,” “utterly immoral,” “a serial philanderer,” and “a narcissist at a level that I don’t think this country has ever seen.” Did anyone really think Cruz would walk back those remarks in his convention speech?
He began in a senatorial tone. With more delegates in the hall than any other second-place finisher since Ronald Reagan in 1976, he acted like he was giving the acceptance speech he would have delivered had he won. He spoke slowly, extending his 12-minute time slot to 23. He talked about freedom. (He’s for it.) And slavery. (He’s against it.) All the while building the crescendo to what Trump forces hoped would be “The Endorsement.”
“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,” he said.
The crowd waited for the next sentence with bated breath. The anticipation was palpable.
“And to those listening, please, don’t stay home in November. Stand and speak . . .”
Suddenly, the mood turned ugly. Trump himself appeared in the back of the hall, stealing the camera focus off the podium, and the digital screen behind Cruz started to flicker in a power outage.
“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.”
The New York delegation seated in front of the podium began to boo. They held out their arms with thumbs down. They knew now the endorsement was not going to come.
“I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation,” Cruz ad-libbed. But the damage was done. Catcalls rained in from all parts of the hall. Trump walked stone-faced to the family VIP section. And the flickering stage screens – the ones that party spokesman Sean Spicer had called phenomenal only the day before – went dead.
Cruz soldiered on, but the crowd was having none of it. Nobody heard his last line: “Freedom matters, and I was part of something beautiful.”
Before he even finished, the Twittersphere was exploding with vitriol, all aimed at Cruz. Chris Christie called him a disgrace. Mike Huckabee said he should never be allowed to hold office again. The Virginia attorney had to escort Cruz’s wife Heidi out of the hall to protect her from irate delegates. And a puckish Hillary Clinton campaign tweeted: “Vote Your Conscience.”
Oh yeah, and Mike Pence spoke.
The pundits were punishing in the aftermath. There is always an aftermath in cable news.
“This convention is a mess,” Chuck Todd said. He chided the Trump campaign for its incompetence. “You have now messed up the Mike Pence rollout twice. Unbelievable!”
“This is a weird night,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“The attacks coming after Ted Cruz are strong, and vicious, and they are going to be unrelenting,” Jake Tapper said.
Before he signed off, Brian Williams held up the front pages of the next day’s Boston Herald and New York Daily News. “BOOS CRUZ” blared the Herald. “CIVIL WAR!” crowed The Daily News.
“And there you have it. Night 3 of the Republican convention.”
The candidate himself was uncharacteristically reserved in his reaction, offered, of course, on Twitter: “Wow, Ted Cruz got booed off the stage, didn’t honor the pledge! I saw his speech two hours early but let him speak anyway. No big deal!”
So much for the pivot.