WEDNESDAY WAS supposed to be the day when the biggies on the speakers’ list at the Quicken Loans Arena let their ideological hair down. It was also supposed to be Mike Pence Ascension Day, the time when the Indiana governor, his bearing ramrod straight outta central casting, was formally named the running mate for Donald Trump, himself formally nominated on Tuesday.
Wednesday was the day for serial performances of partisan outrage, as party thought leaders and talking heads took the stage to directly or indirectly call Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency, everything but a child of God.
There were the usual suspects. But before Wednesday was history, one of the speakers would make history, and become a target for rage and bile that much of his party didn’t see coming.
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If you read Orwell’s “1984,” you remember that rhetorical device Orwell used to give Party members a regular two-minute opportunity to rail against Emmanuel Goldstein and the enemy state. The GOP brain trust made the most of the idea on Wednesday, with variations. It wasn’t always hatred per se, and it certainly wasn’t for two minutes.
Laura Ingraham, conservative radio host, commentator and water carrier for Pantone-red America: “The government doesn’t respect the people, the people don’t respect the government. ... I'm a single mother of three adopted children. I'm here tonight supporting Donald Trump because like most Americans, I refuse to leave them a country that is worse off than the one my parents left me. Donald Trump understands that we must turn this around and restore respect across all levels of society. Unlike us, Hillary Clinton believes the status quo is just fine because she helped create it."
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PHIL RUFFIN, Nevada businessman and friend of Trump: “I have known Donald Trump as a friend and a business partner for over 20 years. You can't be my friend and my business partner for long if you're not honest with me and good to your word. I can tell you Donald Trump is both. He's been an innovator, an entrepreneur. No one in our business works harder or smarter than he does."
Dr. Darrell Scott, co-founder of New Spirit Revival Center Ministries: “We need to make a sharp turn ... this is in our best interests. This election is one of the most crucial elections in American history.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: “Hillary Clinton is the ultimate liberal Washington insider. America deserves better!”
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Florida Gov. Rick Scott: “I’m old enough to remember when terrorism was something that happened in foreign countries. This war [with extremism] is real. It is here in America, and the next president must destroy this evil.”
Michelle Van Etten, businesswoman: “Small business are the backbone of the American economy. We need these entrepreneurs. We live in the land of opportunity. We need to protect the American Dream above all else. We need a president who is businessman, not a Hillary-crat.”
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YOU GET the idea. It might have gone on like that all night if not for one high-profile pol with something to say. Ted Cruz was in the house, and the house was listening, eager to know if he was still on the grounds of the plantation. The Texas senator — Trump’s most able and tenacious rival for the nomination, and the closest thing to a bête noire Trump encountered all primary season — took the podium and at first offered a general thread of comments that suggested he’d finally made his peace with Trump, that all that bad blood on the campaign trail was history.
Using the name of “Caroline,” the first name of the daughter of Michael Smith, one of the five Dallas policemen slain by a gunman in the run-up to the convention, Cruz invoked the word “freedom” several times, attaching his own serial definitions.
“Freedom means free speech, not politically correct safe spaces. Freedom means religious freedom, whether you are Christian, Jew, Muslim, or atheist. Whether you are gay, or straight, the Bill of Rights protects the rights of all of us to live according to our conscience.
“Freedom means the right to keep and bear arms, and to protect your family. Freedom means that every human life is precious and must be protected.
“Freedom means Supreme Court Justices who don't dictate policy, but instead follow the Constitution.”
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SO FAR so good. To this point, Cruz was bringin’ it, preaching the gospel, more or less. And then he put his foot in it. Then he got real.
“We’re fighting, not for one particular candidate or one campaign, but because each of us wants to be able to tell our kids and grandkids, our own Carolines, that we did our best for their future, and for our country.
“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.
“And to those listening, please, don’t stay home in November. If you love our country, and love your children as much as you do, stand and speak, 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.”
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That was that. For a crowd conditioned to believe that voting one’s conscience was code for voting for the Democrats, that phrase from Cruz was enough to make them turn on him in the arena like a rabid dog. He acknowledged the uproar himself moments later, when he said, “I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation.”
Trump might have expected this reaction from Cruz. First there were weeks and months of Trump impugning the appearance of Cruz’s wife and the character of his father, whom Team Trump suggested, with a sinister silkiness, had some involvement with the assassination of President John Kennedy.
And then, in what might have been the last straw, came the removal of the 12 Cruz votes from Alaskan delegates — a hijacking of those votes, approved and authorized by the unity-desperate RNC itself. One way or another, Cruz had had enough. No wonder Trump scuttled out of the nether reaches of the Q into full view, hoping to steal Cruz's thunder, to bottle the lightning that was already out of the bottle.
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THE HOWLING for Cruzian blood, the immediate foaming at the mouth was a clear indicator of how divided and reflexive the Republican Party of 2016 has become. There is no room for dissent, there is no margin for error. Either you read from the GOP hymnal word for word or you are excommunicated. Reactions to Cruz haven’t been so cut and dried.
Voices in the punditburo say that Cruz, having the courage (or the nerve) to do this in 2016 campaign prime time, has either scuttled his chances for being taken seriously in 2020, or greatly enhanced them. Right now, to go by their reactions, there doesn’t seem to be any midpoint between the two extremes. Why should they be any less divided than the rest of us?
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About an hour after Cruz blew the place up, the Indiana governor made all the right anodyne noises, restoring a measure of tranquility to a convention that’s mostly been anything but tranquil. That tranquility took its cues from Pence’s identifying indicia.
The man Speaker Paul Ryan described Wednesday as “a Reagan conservative through and through” went further with a listicle biography: “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” A dead ringer for the badass Race Bannon on the 60’s-era animated series “Jonny Quest,” Pence aw-shucked his way into the hearts of the convention audience.
“You know, I'm new to this campaign and honestly I never thought I'd be standing here. I thought I'd be spending this evening with all my friends from the great state of Indiana.
“Yet, there I was, a few days ago in New York City with the man who won 37 states, who faced 16 talented opponents and outlasted every one of them and along the way brought millions of new voters into the Republican Party.”
Pence listed his bona fides as a reliable conservative and a sharp-eyed monitor of Indiana’s economy: “While the nation suffers under the weight of $19 trillion in a national debt, we in Indiana have a $2 billion surplus, the highest credit rating in the nation, even though we've cut taxes every year since I became governor four years ago.”
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AND PLEDGING “an agenda for a stronger and more prosperous America,” Pence generally announced himself as someone ready to get in the game.
“Now, if you know anything about Hoosiers, you know we love to suit up and compete. We play to win. That's why I joined this campaign in a heartbeat. You have nominated a man for president who never quits, who never backs down, a fighter, a winner. Until now, he's had to do it all by himself against all odds, but this week, with this united party, he's got backup. And on November 8th, I know we will elect Donald Trump to be the 45th president of the United States of America!”
The faithful in the hall applauded by political reflex, but it’s a safe bet that many Republicans are like a multitude of Americans, who don’t have a clue who Mike Pence is. According to the latest NBC / SurveyMonkey poll, 48 percent of voters don't know enough about Pence to have an opinion one way or the other.
Few things are likely to change that quite like three months on the campaign trail, the scorched-earth avenue Donald Trump has been paving and re-paving for more than a year.
Image credits: All images: Pool camera.