The Republican National Convention had a better first night than the Democratic National Convention had any night last week. Here are six quick takeaways.
1. DNC’s Problem Was Not That It Was Virtual
Last week’s Democratic National Convention was barely watchable. People assumed that was because the Chinese coronavirus forced the convention to be held virtually. But the Republican National Convention is also being held virtually, and it was fully of energy and excitement that was completely lacking at the Democratic convention.
Democrats had celebrity hosts, celebrity appearances, and all the talent of the generally liberal media to work with, yet their convention was an absolute grind to get through. Last night, Republicans moved along at a clipped pace, featured genuinely compelling stories, and the speeches drew contrasts with political opponents.
While some Republican speeches were markedly better than others, the only speech that didn’t land was attorney and television personality Kimberly Guilfoyle’s, which was shouted. Her speech would have benefited dramatically from a live audience.
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2. Real People Nearly Stole The Show
Most pundits spent time talking about speeches by former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or current South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. Particularly in Scott’s case, the professional politicians did give good speeches. But the most exciting parts of the evening were speeches from everyday Americans.
The best speech of the evening was given by Maximo Alvarez, a Florida businessman who described his family fleeing Communist systems on their way to the United States. “I have seen people like this before,” he said, describing leftist totalitarian movements. When he said, “I’m speaking to you today because my family is done leaving places. There is nowhere left to go,” it was more powerful than a thousand speeches from professional politicians.
Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow Pollack, who was murdered in the Parkland High School shooting, beautifully memorialized his daughter and talked about the government failures that helped contribute to her death. He condemned the media for focusing on gun control when it was education policy that actually led to his daughter and her classmates being vulnerable.
The only famous person to speak was Herschel Walker, the football star. He talked about his decades-long friendship with President Donald Trump and praised his work on behalf of black Americans. He also told a story about Trump going with his family to Disneyland and riding the “It’s A Small World” ride with him. It was such an unexpected anecdote.
3. How to Do Cross-Partisan Outreach
One of the few continuous themes of the Democratic National Convention was that some Republicans support Joe Biden for president. But the people they had speak could not have been swampier.
Susan Molinari, who took her dad’s seat in Congress, is better known as Google’s former top lobbyist. She made millions lobbying for Russia, too. John Kasich, who lost to Trump in 2016, left Congress for a lucrative job at Lehman Brothers, lasting until it declared bankruptcy as a result of its participation in the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008.
Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey and scion of a wealthy and well-connected family, was also featured. She began speaking against the Republican Party midway through the George W. Bush administration and is known for her support of abortion rights and environmental regulations. An average supposed Republican featured at the Democratic convention turned out to have voted Democrat in four of the last five elections.
By contrast, the Republican convention featured Vernon Jones, a black Democrat Georgia state representative, talking about why he supports Trump. He said when he came out for Trump, “all hell broke loose” and he faced a great deal of criticism.
Walker also talked last night about how he had been raised to be a Democrat but that he doesn’t know what Democrats stand for now. Kimberly Klacik, a black woman running as a Republican for Congress in Baltimore, talked about how her city has a number of black Republicans running to improve the situation for residents of the city. Sen. Tim Scott talked about Biden’s racist comments against black people voting Republican. All discussed how black voters are taken for granted in the Democratic Party.
Unlike a Google lobbyist endorsing Biden, a black Democrat state rep endorsing Trump publicly takes courage. Sean Parnell, running for Congress in Pennsylvania, made an explicit appeal to Democrats considering voting Republican: “In our tent, you are free.”
4. Tackle Democratic Race-Baiting Head On
One major theme of the Democratic convention was that America is a racial hell-hole and Donald Trump is racist. It is quite typical for Democrats and other political groups to incite or exploit racial hatred, prejudice, or tension for political gain around the time of elections. While black voters are some of Democrats’ most reliable supporters, fear of a larger segment of them being recruited by Trump has led to particular hysteria among Democratic strategists this election season.
The typical Republican response is to cower in fear or respond defensively that they are not racist. But the first night of this convention was not that at all. At this convention, Republicans traded defense for offense.
Whether it was Jones or Klacik speaking about their frustrations with how Democrats handle race issues, Haley describing the racism she faced as a little brown girl growing up in South Carolina, Walker talking about how offended he gets when people claim his friend Trump is racist, or Scott describing how his family went from “cotton to Congress in a lifetime,” the speeches and rhetoric weren’t timid or tiptoeing around issues but tackling them head on. It was a surprising change of pace.
5. Embrace, Redefine Trump Criticism
All elections are about choices, and good campaigns will make those choices clear. For Democrats, their monomaniacal focus at their convention was that Bad Orange Man Is Bad. Some speeches accused him of murder, others of destroying democracy, others of being racist.
This was not an unwise choice for them given that unseating Trump has been the one unifying goal of a Democratic Party otherwise in disarray and on the brink of a civil war. In this vein, Biden was mostly a tool to enable this goal rather than a candidate that people genuinely rallied around. However, they worked hard to say Joe would be a nice guy.
But the limitations of that policy were on full display when speaker after speaker dispatched the complaints against Trump with ease. Rep. Matt Gaetz said Trump “raises his voice and a ruckus” because he needs to in order to get patriots fighting on behalf of the country. Pollack said that Trump had no time for “B.S.” Others said he wasn’t “politically correct.” Others said he talked “tough” or told the truth.
And speaker after speaker talked about Trump reaching out to them and showing kindness — a side that is not portrayed by many in the media.
Nobody said the criticisms of Trump were completely without merit. How could they? But they showed not just that there are alternative ways of viewing Trump aside from inside-the-beltway groupthink, but that such alternative ways are far more compelling than the reflexive scorn he receives from the media and other activists.
6. Focus On Policy
One of the many misconceptions about Trump’s victory in 2016 was that he won only because people disliked Hillary Clinton. While she was strongly disliked, so was he. The differences in policy should not be overlooked.
Trump’s 2016 campaign emphasized policy, and his voters had no confusion about where he stood on strong borders, trade with China, lengthy wars, nominating good judges, and other key issues that animate voters. While the first night of the Republican National Convention focused on policy about as much as most Republican conventions do, which is a fair amount, it really did highlight the unforced error by Democrats to leave policy out of their convention in favor of just tearing down Trump.
It remains to be seen whether Republicans can keep the excitement and energy flowing for the remainder of the convention.