America saw a divided party Wednesday night, though what it was divided over wasn't evident if you haven't been paying close attention.
What everyone saw was Ted Cruz humiliating the Republican Party's nominee Donald Trump by ignoring the chants from delegates of "endorse Trump" after cheekily telling the audience to "vote your conscience."
But Cruz made that historically unprecedented declaration after delivering a speech that was perfectly in line with Donald Trump's campaign. He backed building a border wall, refusing Syrian refugees, and "trade policies that put the interests of American farmers over the interests that are funding the lobbyists."
Cruz doesn't disagree with Trump. He thinks Trump is a pretender to the cause, or he remains angry at how Trump personally insulted him, his wife and his father – or both.
The person who really disagrees with Trump is his vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, who said in December that "calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional." In 2006 he concluded "it is not logistically possible to round up 12 million illegal aliens." He supports NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). And he disavowed negative campaigning 25 years ago.
Pence swallowed hard and sucked up. In his nomination acceptance speech, he used artful language to cut loose his old views. Trump's not a negative campaigner, he's just "a little rough with politicians on a stage," which is fine because "I’ve seen this good man up close." He promised Trump would "secure our borders" but he left out Cruz's embrace of the wall. And he's skipped over the whole trade thing, and the whole banning Muslims thing.
Pence joined the ticket despite these major difference because he concluded it served his interest. Either he becomes VP now or, more likely, he positions himself as a Trump-friendly party leader who can pick up the pieces of a broken party after a stinging defeat. Cruz wants to pick up those same pieces; he just thinks he's better positioned if he hugs Trump's right-wing populist views, while keeping his hands clean of the Trump campaign train wreck.
Up until Cruz, we haven't seen disunity in the hall. We've seen a unity of hatred: the denouncement of "Black Lives Matter," the disparagement of immigrants as murderers, and the mob chants of "Lock Her Up."
The party is mostly divided between those inside the hall and those who refused to come to Cleveland. They are mainly divided over whether the party should accept America's multiculturalism or fight it. The latter choice is electoral suicide, but that's the choice that the bitter and bigoted in the Republican ranks – like Rep. Steve King – have made.
Cruz leaves Cleveland with his self-respect because he refused to kiss Trump's ring. But by echoing Trump attacks on immigrants, Cruz is on the wrong side of demographic history. If the Republican Party passes its baton to him in 2020, the party wouldn't dig out of its current hole. Same with Pence having allowed himself to be infected by Trump.
There is definitely political space to be seized by a Republican anticipating a Trump loss. But the leader who can pick up the pieces in December, while leaving the bigoted ones on the ground, is the leader who can actually fix what's broken.