The 2020 Republican presidential race began on a fractious and flummoxing night in Cleveland, one day after a deeply and bitterly divided party formally selected its 2016 nominee.
Four of the most likely contenders for the party’s nomination in four years spoke to the delegates at Donald Trump’s convention and laid out their cases for the post-Trump Republican Party, even before the current nominee is scheduled to deliver his acceptance speech on Thursday.
The quartet — vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, presidential runner-up Ted Cruz, presidential flameout Scott Walker, and remote-control speaker Marco Rubio — all took different paths to the podium and aimed their remarks at different audiences.
Pence was the loyal lieutenant to Donald Trump. The Indiana governor once supported Ted Cruz, but he switched teams after Trump’s triumph and urged other Republicans to do it. His gracious, low-key approach will endear him to die-hard Trump loyalists and to congressional Republicans who are not (and never have been) enamored with Trump.
Walker urged the party to unite, but mostly repeated his pro-business, anti-Washington talk that has made him a hero in anti-union circles but didn’t resonate particularly well with the working-class white voters who this year seized control of the Republican Party. His praise for Trump was tepid. “A vote for anyone other than Donald Trump is a vote for Hillary,” he told the delegates.
Rubio, as has been his style during his single term in the Senate, tried to have it both ways. He didn’t attend the convention — giving him a bit of distance from Trump, in case the GOP nominee eventually self-immolates. But his brief video remarks included all the right touches to win applause from the Trump loyalists in Cleveland. “The time for fighting each other is over,” said Rubio, who famously described Trump as a small-handed “con artist” and “the most vulgar person ever to aspire to the presidency.” That was then, this is now: “It’s time to come together,” he told delegates.
That message didn’t reach Ted Cruz. The Texas senator, dubbed “Lyin’ Ted” by Trump, couldn’t bring himself to endorse the nominee. Cruz, whose father was linked to Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Trump, gave a Reagan-like conservative call to arms. He talked conservative principles. He didn’t talk Trump. He didn’t endorse Trump’s policies or his candidacy. He said to Americans, “Vote your conscience.” He was heckled during his speech. He was booed as he left the stage.
It was a calculated gamble with his national political future hanging in the balance. If Trump manages to win the election, Cruz is going to be a non-person in Donald Trump’s Washington. The Senate leadership, Republican and Democrat, despises him and the president would, too. If Trump loses, Cruz has already volunteered to lead the ragged Republican survivors.
In the meantime, he’s a non-person in Trump World. Even Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson disinvited Cruz to his convention suite, with associates telling CNN that he didn’t want to be an anti-Trump prop at this point.
The reaction from Republicans was varied, but it was almost all emotionally charged, positively and negatively.
Of note, Ted Cruz is getting praised from both the left and right of the GOP, but not from the establishment. Perfect set up for 2020.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) July 21, 2016
Not hard to find CRUZ delegates who think he lit his career on fire
— Steven Dennis (@StevenTDennis) July 21, 2016
Representative Peter King of New York, an enthusiastic Cruz hater, piled on.
“To me, Ted Cruz showed America what he really is,” King told NBC in a post-speech rant. “He’s a fraud. He’s a liar. He’s self-centered. He disqualified himself from ever being considered for president of the United States.
“He took a pledge to support the nominee. Today the Ted Cruz that I’ve known — he cannot be trusted and he’s not a true Republican. He’s not a true conservative. I never saw as much outrage on the floor as I did tonight.”
King’s views are widely held among moderate Republicans and Trumpistas, but Cruz is confident there is a path to victory following a Trump defeat. Like Ronald Reagan following his 1976 loss to Gerald Ford, Cruz sent a clear signal that he will keep on running, even if it means challenging an incumbent President Trump in four years.
But not every Republican shares King’s contempt for Cruz. The Texas firebrand is hoping that people like David Frum will help him rebuild the Republican Party from the rubble of Trump — if it is indeed rubble come November.
Ted Cruz earned the most honorable boos at a GOP convention since those for Nelson Rockefeller for condemning the John Birch Society.
— David Frum (@davidfrum) July 21, 2016
I have never been more proud to work for Ted Cruz that I was tonight. This speech will survive the test of time-historically courageous.
— Chris Wilson (@WilsonWPA) July 21, 2016
For one day, at least, Ted Cruz got what he wants. We’re talking about him and not about Donald Trump. And we’re talking about him as the post-Trump voice of the GOP. That’s what most reporters are writing today. But remember the other three 2020 candidates who also auditioned for the next nomination on a crazy night in Cleveland.