There was the floor fight over the adoption of the report of the Rules Committee. This was a key vote because adoption of the rules as presented by the committee would drive the last nail in the coffin of the Never Trump movement and their effort to free delegates to vote their conscience on the first ballot. The acting chair, Representative Steve Womack (R. Arkansas), called for a voice vote on the report of the Rules Committee and quickly awarded it to the Ayes, and indeed from up where I was sitting in the nose-bleed seats in the upper level of the arena, it sounded like 55-45 or so in favor of the Trump supporters.
The anti-Trump forces on the floor rebelled and called for a roll call vote. Under party rules, they were entitled to demand a roll call vote if they had the support of a majority of the members of at least seven delegations. The pro-Trump supporters tried to drown out calls for a roll call by chanting U-S-A., U-S-A, while the anti-Trump delegates changed Shame-Shame, in response.
Then there was the silence from the podium, as Womack left the stage and Trump forces scurried to squelch the opposition on the floor. After what seemed to be an uncomfortably long time, Steve Womack reappeared, with his counsel huddled by his side, and reported that while nine state delegations had petitioned for a roll call vote, a recount of the petitioning state delegations indicated that three of them no longer had sufficient votes to petition for a floor vote, as delegates in each had changed their votes.
One has to wonder what sort of backroom arm twisting had led to the change of heart--old school threats, or perhaps offers of future vacations at Mara Lago--but the end result was a second affirmation of the rules by a voice vote. "We are in now in uncharted territory," lamented anti-Trump Senator Mike Lee (R. Utah), though Lee seemed to have a short memory, as both the uprising and its denouement seemed tame by historical political convention standards. It lasted all of 20 minutes or so.
Or perhaps the first day of the convention will be remembered for Melania Trump's emergence from the shadows of her husband's campaign to give a careful, graceful speech, befitting the trained supermodel she once was. She promised a campaign, like all Trump undertakings, filled with “drama and excitement.” Few commented on the irony of the appearance of the new hero of the American conservative movement--a movement built on religious and moral principles of which fidelity and commitment are surely a part--on stage with his third wife. Melania's speech was overshadowed by the apparent cribbing of lines from an earlier convention speech by Michele Obama, a problem that was compounded first by Melania's suggestion that she had written the speech herself, and then the denial by Trump advisor Paul Manafort that any plagiarism had in fact taken place. But unless the campaign continues down the path of denial of the obvious, it would seem unlikely that mistake will have any enduring impact.
But the unchallenged star of the show on the first night was the woman who was not present. For the divided Republican Party seeking a path forward, the first day of the convention was all about Hillary Clinton. This will no doubt be the pattern of the days to come, and will constitute the core strategy for the campaign to come. The hatred of Hillary Clinton is raw, it is deep, and it is consuming.
Conversations I had with delegates over the course of the afternoon suggested that each had their own reasons for coming to embrace the New York billionaire. There was Diana, a delegate from Arkansas, who had built her own business over forty years. She picked Trump from the get-go from the field of candidates first and foremost because she wanted a candidate who knew what it meant to meet a payroll, and was tired of politicians.
There was Donna, from Boston, who embraced Trump early on. Terrorism is the issue that attracted her to Trump's campaign--in large measure in response to the Boston bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers--and particularly his unapologetic language. She said she is tired of having to be careful about what she says and how she says it, and things people need to toughen up. "I am sure you think I'm crazy," she said, smiling, "but I think Islam should be illegal." I reassured her that she was, as I smiled back.
There was Drew, from Texas, whose motivating issue was Obamacare paying for sex reassignment hormone therapy for a four-year-old. "The parents should be in jail," he commented, leaving aside the obvious question of where he had come up with a story that he fervently believed.
But if each of the people I talked two saw something different in Trump, they shared a common disdain for Hillary. Each day of the Convention is designed to have a different thematic spin on Making America Great Again, and the theme of the first day of was Making America Safe Again. While media reports have focused on the chaos around the rules committee vote and Melania Trump speech fiasco, inside the hall, the speeches were visceral and interconnected. And each of them tied back to Hillary Clinton's culpability for peoples fears and insecurity.
First came Benghazi, and the testimonies of young men who had fought there and older women who had lost children. Then came illegal immigration and the testimonies of those who had lost siblings and children in the gun and drug wars along our southern border and in other areas. Then came the deaths of police officers. Blue lives matter, and more important, rules matter. They are what bind society together.
At root of all of the testimony, on foreign policy, on immigration policy, and on domestic law and order, were the interconnected themes of the duplicity of Hillary Clinton--whose decisions were criminal, who was indifferent to the personal suffering that ensued, and who was herself above the law--and the courage of Donald Trump as the antidote. Hillary Clinton, one presenter commented, wants to be president because it is good for Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump wants to be president because it is good for America. The Donald Trump of this GOP could not be more different that the Donald Trump seen by Democrats and in much of the media, much less as described by Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and other vanquished candidates. Gone is the sociopathic narcissist, the man who makes it up as he goes along and says whatever it takes to keep his audience engaged, this Donald Trump--their Donald Trump--is a selfless patriot, poised to save the nation from impending collapse.
The most powerful speaker was Patricia Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, who died in Benghazi. Her grieving testimony was riveting. "Hillary Clinton lied to me, and then called me a liar." A mothers grief. "Hillary Clinton is a mother and a grandmother of two. I am a mother, and a grandmother of two. How could she do this to me. Donald Trump is everything Hillary is not. He is blunt and strong. He will not hesitate to kill the terrorists who threaten American lives. He will make America stronger. The entire campaign comes down to a single question. If Hillary Clinton cannot give us the truth, why should we give her the presidency. She deserves to be in prison, she deserves to be in stripes."
For all the talk about chaos on the first day, the simple truth is that the Republican Party will coalesce around its nominee. Even die hard movement conservatives, who must recognize that Trump has become a conservative as a matter of political expedience, will not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Trump may only have 70% support among Republicans today, but come election day, and a binary choice between Trump and Hillary, that support will be well over 90%.
With the rules committee vote behind them, the path toward uniting the Republican Party is clear, and it is Hillary. The path for the Democratic Party is less clear. Certainly, the majority of Bernie Sanders supports will end up with Hillary, but unlike the Republican electorate, which tends to be older, Democrats--and in particular Sanders supports--are younger, and turnout in fall elections tends to be a function of age. In Hillary's favor is that her campaign must have always assumed low turnout among younger voters. Her problem will be that a fair share of most enthusiastic Democratic voters in the primaries were young and were for Sanders. Bringing them out in the fall may not be an easy task.
After the first day in Cleveland, it seemed apparent that the fall election will be less about reaching out to moderate voters than turning out the base. America is politically divided, and this election portends more of the same. The theme of the fourth night is supposed to be Making America One Again, but that is an illusion, if it is a sincere intention at all. But they have a good chance of Making the GOP One Again. In that regard, Donald Trump had a good first day. Forget the commentary about chaos, this was about red meat, and there was a lot of it. As long as Republicans remember Hillary in all they do, she will show them the path.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.