Wednesday, July 20, 2016

RNC Day 2: Veering off message.

Day two of the Republican National Convention started auspiciously. Somehow, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort missed the memo about campaign crisis management that suggested that when you make a mistake you acknowledge it, deal with it and move on. Faced with the fiasco of Melania Trump's convention speech having taken lines from Michelle Obama's convention speech eight years ago, Manafort chose to deny that the similarity in the words was anything more than a casual coincidence. As the saying goes, if you put one million monkeys in front of a million typewriters, one of them is bound to peck out the complete works of Shakespeare. But it was not enough to deny the obvious, Manafort then pivoted to point a finger at the root cause of Melania's problem: The Clinton campaign. When Hillary is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy them. 

Manafort's strategy of denial and deflection was both bad management and bad politics. Trump's entire political career has been built on casting aspersions on individuals and groups alike, beginning with his championing of the birther movement. During the campaign itself, he began with Jeb Bush and the entire country of Mexico, and moved on from there. Now, for some reason, Manafort and Trump both seemed to think that Melania deserved the benefit of the doubt, as Trump lashed out at the media for paying any regard to the issue.

Manafort's efforts to stonewall the plagiarism problem only egged people on. By the time Trump staffer Meredith McIver stepped forward the next day to admit culpability for inadvertently including Michelle Obama's words in Melania Trump's speech, the damage was done. The focus on Melania had turned social media attention to the fact that she apparently lied on her publicly published bio, which states that she graduated from college in her home country with a degree in design and architecture, while according to her biographers she dropped out of college after her freshman year. Perhaps more damning, if less discussed, was that it proved both Manafort and Donald Trump himself to by liars and hypocrites. First they denied the facts, and then pointed the finger of blame at Hillary and the media. It may have started as an innocent mistake, but by their actions Manafort and Trump together compounded the damage, to Melania, to their convention, and to their own efforts to prove themselves ready for prime time.

Appropriate to the focus on Melania's education and work visa history, the convention theme of day two was Make America Work Again. It lacked the punch of day one, when the theme of Make America Safe Again was easily melded with attacks on Hillary Clinton as the root of our national sense of insecurity. Day one began with terrorism, moved on the immigration and then ended up with the urgency of sending Hillary Clinton to prison for her high crimes and misdemeanors. At best, for Republicans, the end result of day one was the articulation of a campaign strategy that will unite the Republican Party and put it on the path to victory in the fall. At worst, should Hillary prevail in the fall, the waves of vitriolic, anti-Hillary diatribes that constituted the day one agenda will serve as the basis for the nullification of the validity of the election and lay the groundwork for four years of ever more bitter national division.

The tone of the second day of speeches was plodding by comparison with the first day. Despite the fact that the deterioration in working class white worker wages was supposed to be the root cause of voter anger and catalyst of the Trump candidacy, the Make America Work Again agenda and discussions of policy or what a Trump administration might actually do sparked little evident enthusiasm across the delegate ranks. Speaker of the House and RNC Convention Chairman Paul Ryan (R, WI) tried to galvanize interest among the gathered delegates in his much-vaunted public policy agenda to little avail. Ryan is a protégé of former New York Congressman and Vice Presidential candidate Jack Kemp, often described as the voice of "bleeding heart conservatism" in the Republican Party. Ryan, who continues to resist a full throated embrace of his party's presidential nominee, is a true believer in the notion that politics is a contest of ideas, and that public policy is the anvil on which political parties should be measured and tested. Make America Work Again was right up his alley.

Yet as Ryan spoke, the arena was silent. Perhaps the apparent delegate indifference reflected the views presented in a Politico article on the convention that suggested that while the delegates "all seem to agree the Obama economy is a ghastly mess, except for the economy wherever they happen to live." Whatever the reason, those delegates sat on their hands as Ryan argued for ending identity politics and building an economy that offered respect for all. "So much that you and I care about," Ryan argued "...stands in the balance in this election." Nothing but silence. All that was left for Ryan to do was to appeal to the unity of the party--code now for the capitulation of anti-Trump forces--"What do you say that we unify this party..." Finally, Ryan won the big roar that he had sought, and he exited the stage.

Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R. CA) followed Ryan and made a plea for a more expansive Republican ethos. "Republicans," McCarthy suggested, "believe in an America that is not divided by race and ethnicity and gender." Wild cheers from a small wedge of California delegates seated right by the stage, while the rest of the arena was silent. "Government will help those who truly need it, and help all to rise." Cheers again from California alone. Like Ryan before him, McCarthy's only moment of engagement from the crowd came in his closing words, when he invoked the words guaranteed to win the crowd. "Ronald Reagan...City on a Hill..." McCarthy said, pandering to his audience, and finally bringing cheers and applause across the hall. And like Ryan before him, he was gone.

The theme of the final night of the convention is slated to be Make America One Again, yet the tenor of the crowd through the second day remained one of vilification of Trump's enemies, both within the party and beyond. The delegates on the floor roundly booed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R. KY) each time he was introduced on the podium. And each time state delegations entered the votes for other candidates during the nomination process, there were boos and catcalls. Donald Trump himself called into a radio show during the day one testimony of Patricia Smith--pushing the most vivid speech of the day from the TV screens--to trash Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has declined to endorse him. While Paul Manafort and Chris Christie both publicly castigated the Bush family for not signing on.

Donald Trump personally established the tone of nasty, personal invective and yet both he and his campaign staff seem genuinely surprised that he is viewed as a liar, a racist and a bitterly divisive figure, both inside and outside of the Republican Party. The testimonies of many who know him paint a picture of a man fundamentally different than the image that Trump has cultivated of himself in his political life, dating back to his embrace of the Birther movement. Trump has built his campaign around the art of blaming and labeling, and it continues to define the campaign. It began with his attacks on Jeb Bush, who this week penned an op-ed in the Washington Post, wistfully suggesting that Donald Trump does not reflect the principles or inclusive legacy of the Republican Party. Paul Ryan has struggled to assert Bush's sentiments. But the crowd is having none of it, and is committed to the vilification of the enemies within, much less those without.

Chris Christie's speech took the attacks on Hillary Clinton to a new level. Each of the delegates I have met here have been friendly and affable, yet in the arena, as a crowd, they have been easily moved to the edge of being a riotous, angry mob. Role playing a trial of Hillary Clinton, with himself as the prosecutor and the delegates as the jury, Christie willfully encouraged the mob, amping the rhetoric up to new highs and giving license to the delegates for their continued chants of LOCK HER UP! Christie went beyond Benghazi and the email issues to put new arguments on the table. Most astonishing was his accusation that she was personally responsible for the kidnapping of 276 girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Guilty, roared the crowd. LOCK HER UP!

Christie’s was the most powerful and most engaging of the night’s speeches, and its success tells much about how weak the Make America Work Again theme was. When in doubt, rip Hillary. And if Christie's speech was off the theme, Donald Trump, Jr's was not much better. Trump was tanned and articulate, brilliant if you were a fan, smarmy if you were not. His speech was a perfect example of why it is great to be a speechwriter. Conservative scholar Frank Buckley wrote the speech and used it as a platform to present his own ideas, in his own words, and hear those words coming out of the mouth of a handsome, articulate and aspiring politician.

The only problem with Junior's speech was that it had little or nothing to do with the economic agenda that Donald Trump has articulated to date. There was little or nothing about trade. Nothing about immigration. Nothing about corporate greed or Wall Street. Nothing about preserving social security. Nothing about the range of issues, incendiary or otherwise, that have become party of the Trump oeuvre over the past year. Instead of the Trump agenda--an agenda that has in many respects had more in common with Bernie Sanders than with the GOP--Buckley wrote and Junior gave a speech that was, quite literally, right off the pages of The American Spectator, a monthly conservative journal, with a focus on reducing regulation and allowing school choice. It was a good speech. It won wide praise. It simply had nothing to do with the campaign that his father has run to date.

Instead, Donald Junior offered a simple vision of how his father would Make America Work. Simply stated, his father can do anything. For him, the impossible is just a starting point, so he will simply fix it. Junior laid out one theme after another and said that with his father at the helm, the nation would be transformed. There were no programs, there were no proposals. The was none of the policy that Paul Ryan holds dear. Just his father. And there would be no more data. Trump's are not about data, they go with their gut. It bore a remarkable similarity to the campaign we are watching, and no doubt if Donald Trump wins the presidency, it will only affirm his confidence in his gut. He will fix America, his son is quite certain of it. I could only recall a story that former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt told about a conversation with George W. Bush in November 2009. "Barack Obama," the outgoing President commented, "is about to find out that it is not as easy as he thinks it is." 

The day came toward its close with the words of former presidential candidate Ben Carson. In his unique, soft spoken manner, Carson had nothing to say about making America work again, and instead offered the most scathing indictment yet of Hillary Clinton. With a syllogistic reasoning mirroring God is love. Love is blind. Stevie Wonder is blind. Therefore Stevie Wonder is God. Carson made the argument to the rapt faithful in attendance. Saul Alinsky cited Lucifer. Hillary Clinton wrote about Alinsky. Therefore Hillary Clinton is a Satanist.

Enough said.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at

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