What Ted Cruz was thinking when he snubbed Donald Trump

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

Cleveland will always mark the spot where Republicans nominated businessman Donald Trump as the "I alone" candidate for president.

Where his wife and children, perhaps our next royal family, endured their national television debuts, one by one.

Where we were assured that, like their father, the Trump offspring are both blue-blooded and blue-collared — and are as comfortable at the controls of a D-10 Caterpillar as an Aston Martin.

All of this, save for the bulldozer, was predicted weeks in advance. And so, as they broke camp for home, witnesses to the four-day affair that was the Republican National Convention found themselves more focused on the unexpected.

Such as, what was Ted Cruz thinking?

Why, rather than endorsing Trump from the stage of “the Q” on Wednesday, did the Texas senator instead express his fond desire that “the principles that our party believes prevail in November”?

Trump was still talking about it Friday as he left Cleveland. “Honestly, he may have ruined his political career. I feel so badly,” the nominee said — a sure sign that it stung.

The Cruz question may have more immediate relevance in Georgia than anywhere else outside of Texas. Though he was overwhelmed by Trump in our state’s presidential primary, Cruz established the most extensive grassroots network of any presidential candidate.

It remains in place. And what many of you think about Cruz’ performance in Cleveland could determine who replaces U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County, in Congress.

Fresh from the shores of Lake Erie, Cruz was in west Georgia on Friday evening, campaigning for state Sen. Mike Crane of Newnan, who is locked in a bitter GOP runoff against former West Point mayor Drew Ferguson for the Third District congressional seat. The vote is Tuesday.

In Newnan, Cruz never mentioned Trump by name. But the crowd gave him a standing ovation when the Texas senator referenced to the “little-noticed talk” he gave in Cleveland. Not exactly evidence of a ruined career.

With Cruz, in both Ohio and Georgia, was state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus. McKoon was on the floor of the Quicken Loan Arena when Cruz spoke. Before McKoon left Cleveland, I caught up with him and several other Cruz supporters in the Georgia delegation.

McKoon, by the way, says he’s supporting the GOP nominee.

Yet he offered a caveat. “There are definitely certain people who have problems with Donald Trump being the standard-bearer of the Republican party,” McKoon said. “Political parties shouldn’t be about cults of personality. I think that’s a question that a lot of other people are wrestling with.”

To a person, the Cruz supporters we spoke to told us that, if we wanted to understand what the Texas senator was going for last Wednesday — not what Cruz accomplished, but what he was attempting — we needed to visit YouTube.com.

Look up Ronald Reagan’s address to the 1976 GOP convention that nominated the unelected incumbent, President Gerald Ford, we were told. Reagan didn’t endorse Ford. Rather, the California governor laid down a series of principles that made him the party’s natural standard-bearer once Democratic Jimmy Carter prevailed in November.

Cruz sought to do the same last week. “Freedom means recognizing that our Constitution allows states to choose policies that reflect local values. Colorado might decide something different than Texas, New York different than Iowa,” Cruz said, a line that generated hefty applause. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be, diversity. If not, what’s the point of having states to begin with?

But there is a vast gulf between what Reagan accomplished and what Cruz tried.

Reagan’s speech was eight minutes long. Cruz set what was then a Cleveland convention record at 24 minutes. (Trump’s acceptance speech on Thursday was thrice as long.)

Reagan extolled Ford’s hospitality, and praised the president’s treatment of his wife. In the end, Ford and Reagan briefly wrapped an arm around each other.

Cruz offered Trump a cold dose of congratulations for winning the nomination. The two were separated by hundreds of yards and a rowdy audience.

Reagan never identified his breach with Ford as personal. Cruz did. Trump had hinted that Cruz’ wife was something other than beautiful. He suggested that Cruz’ father, a Cuban immigrant, had a hand in JFK’s assassination.

“I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father,” Cruz said in a first explanation of his speech on Thursday.

And yet there is one major similarity between the two Republican conventions, and thus between the aims of Reagan and Cruz. In 1976, Reaganites were able to seize control of the GOP platform, and turned it into a significantly more conservative document.

“I believe the Republican party has a platform that is a banner of bold, unmistakable colors with no pale, pastel shades,” Reagan said.

In Cleveland, the forces of Trump placed only a few demands on the Republican platform approved last week: A wall along the Mexico border, harsh penalties for repeat illegal immigrants, less enthusiastic language on the topic of free trade, and such like.

The rest was left in the hands of the social conservative wing of the GOP. The platform endorses a constitutional ban on abortion. It damns corporations that threaten boycotts over “religious liberty” legislation intended to protect those who want nothing to do with gay marriage. The acronym “LGBT” was barred from the document.

The 2016 platform opposes any bans on assault weapons or regulation of ammunition, and contends that air pollution — the chief cause of climate change – is on the decline.

When Ford was defeated in 1976, the GOP platform adopted that year became the blueprint for the Reagan Revolution. Should Trump falter in November, social conservatives hope history will repeat itself.

This is where Cruz’ strategy comes into play. “If you love our country and love your children as much as I know that you do, stand and speak and vote for your conscience,” he said at the end of his non-endorsement speech.

In the days leading up to the Cleveland convention, “conscience” had become a well-understood, loaded phrase used to describe social conservatives who bore moral objections to Trump’s candidacy.

On Thursday, religious conservative stalwarts like Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, and Jerry Falwell Jr., leader of Liberty University, participated in the ceremonies surrounding Trump’s acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination. Ralph Reed has lined up behind Trump as well.

Cruz has placed himself on the side of “conscience” Republicans. He’s betting that, come December, the Trump name will carry a political taint that’s best to avoid.