The crowd wasn't booing Ted Cruz: they were saying "Cruuuuuuuuz."
This is the only piece of spin or analysis left on Thursday morning after Ted Cruz left the stage of the Quicken Loans arena to a bath of boos. Overnight there has been a rush of punditry looking at every angle of the hero-to-goat tour the Texas Senator took Wednesday night. He traveled a lot of emotional distance, given that when Cruz first emerged from the wings, the crowd gave him a thunderous blast of approval. It actually seemed like a unity moment: They were cheering Cruz that loudly, even though everyone had known for weeks he wasn't going to endorse Trump.
The message of the Republican convention was supposed to be unity. It might wind up being chaos. Trump managers hoped to use the four-day show to gloss over the pain of the primaries and reset the nominee's image. Republicans from Paul Ryan to Mitch McConnell have said some pretty harsh things about Trump's character and qualifications for the office. If the convention could come off smoothly, the theory went, the Trump campaign would use that success as an argument for why he was fit for the presidency. It's a sleight of hand, but that's what conventions are. They are a chance to shake the Etch-a-Sketch clean.
Unless you've drawn the image with a Sharpie.
Ted Cruz interrupted the plan with an assist from the convention audience who helped him create a TV moment of bright discord. More than the tableau was damaged though. The larger issue raised by the Cruz-Trump friction is that it adds to the aggregate share of Trump-related drama. With Trump, it seems, there is always going to be drama. His wife Melania nodded to this in her remarks. "It would not be a Trump contest without excitement and drama," she said. It was an attempt to make the perpetual cycle of adventure seem like a harmless personality trait, like bespoke cufflinks, but it might wind up handcuffing the campaign.
Trump may be a fresh leveling wind, but his approach also creates damaging blow-back. When you attack a man's wife and suggest his father was in on JFK's murder, as Trump did with Cruz, it's going to come back on you. Cruz cited these attacks in defending his lack of an endorsement.
While the Cruz blowback was stealing the spotlight from Governor Mike Pence Wednesday night, Trump was creating new chaos in a more direct way. In an interview with the New York Times, the GOP nominee raised new questions about his commitment to NATO. He suggested that if Baltic states were attacked by Russia, the U.S. response would not be automatic but conditional, based on whether the countries "have fulfilled their obligations to us."
This was a two-pronged chaos attack. First, it was denounced by Republicans as bad policy -- a sign of weakness, as well as outright contrary to the message being sent from the convention stage about U.S. leadership and honoring commitments. Second, it was politically ill-timed. It stepped on the message of Trump's convention that night and the larger message of Trump's whole four-day cyclotron. When you're trying to show that you're qualified, it's extremely risky to do an interview at the very same time that might expose that you're not qualified. By the end of the night Wednesday, party insiders were debating which distraction was more damaging, Cruz or NATO.
If you were not following the script, Ted Cruz's remarks on stage would not have seemed incendiary. Welcomed with thunderous applause, he made an argument for constitutional government and overthrowing the Washington elites in both parties. Then, he told the audience to vote their conscience. In one world, that might naturally mean vote for Donald Trump. That it didn't mean that and instead invited boos might make a casual observer wonder what it was about Donald Trump that would be at odds with a person's conscience.
What the crowd found offensive was that Cruz used language that in politics conveys that it's okay to make a choice other than what your party might want. That is not the view of the party faithful. Hours before Cruz spoke, talk radio host Laura Ingraham had brought the crowd to roaring ecstasy when she said "every single Republican, even all you boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos--and we love you, we love you--but you must honor your pledge to support Donald Trump now! Tonight! Tonight!"
Speaker Paul Ryan referred to the presidential vote as a conscience vote several weeks ago, which isn't much different than what Cruz said. But Ryan didn't say it on the convention stage, and that elevated the drama.
The Trump team knew the line was coming. Time's Zeke Miller reports that they whipped the crowd up to boo Cruz and embarrass him. It may have done that. Cruz is on the defensive. But it also upped the chaos factor and put enormous focus on the topic of discord, reminding everyone of the nature of the Trump/Cruz fight -- the insults, the ideological clashes-- at just the moment the campaign was trying to get rid of the past.
One GOP strategist sketched an alternative messaging strategy. Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz all spoke on the same night. Trump and his team should have pre-spun Cruz's remarks as being a part of the night of the vanquished, said the GOP veteran. Sure Cruz didn't endorse but after a tough primary no one should expect that, they could have said: No one can read his remarks and take them as an endorsement of Hillary Clinton.
They could have whipped the delegates to applaud after Cruz spoke. There would be no moment of video for the networks to play over and over again and no moment to overshadow Eric Trump who was coming on stage right after Cruz to testify to his father's character, which was to have been the entire point of the convention. With Tweets from the candidate attacking Cruz, the fight is likely to continue right until the moment Trump speaks Thursday night. The effort to hit back-- which also has the campaign in a fight with Ohio governor John Kasich -- is creating the kind of news the candidate doesn't want and which nervous Republicans fear the most.
When Mike Pence was picked, Republicans kept using the same word: "stabilize." They hoped he would make the Trump campaign less volatile and hoped he was as symbol that the nominee was listening and that he recognized that he had to make sensible choices to keep the campaign on track. They hoped it would lower the aggregate level of chaos. Now, as the convention heads into the final night, Donald Trump, who made political history by using the chaos he created to win the nomination, has to find a way to somehow make that chaos work for him again.