Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are from diametrically opposed parties, but they have some important objectives in common for their nominating conventions. Both are historically unpopular and have to improve their likeability quotient. Trump had to demonstrate he can run a stable presidency and Clinton has to reduce the public’s intense distrust of her.
Following the GOP convention in Cleveland, what might we expect when the Democrats’ turn? Clinton could play it safe by trashing Trump from various angles, bring out Chelsea, President Clinton and the usual cast of Washington suits (male and female) reminding us how wonderful Hillary is. But I hope they will go a different route.
One of the few potential controversies hanging over the Democratic National Convention was Bernie Sanders’ supporters’ irritation with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee. They believed the DNC had put its thumb on the scale in favor of Clinton, and WikiLeaks’ hacked emails are proving them right. As a former party chairman and state legislator at different times in my career, I know that you cannot do both right. The former position requires you be a political operative; the latter requires you to focus on bipartisan policy making. Wasserman Schultz’s resignation as chair removes a cloud over the convention.
As for the Republican convention, the first two nights were too dark. The sight of 2,000 people shouting to lock Clinton up during Chris Christie’s speech made the convention look more like a witch hunt than an aspirational appeal to Americans. Rudy Guliani was hardly better, looking old and mean.
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Wednesday provided some of the greatest political theater in recent convention history. As a former New Yorker who detests Ted Cruz, I loved Trump’s walk out on the stage and figuratively stomping on him before he finished speaking. It was akin to Ted Kennedy not shaking hands with President Carter at the 1980 Democratic Convention and will surely become a part of American convention folklore.
Cruz’s description of New York in the past has contained thinly veiled racism and anti-Semitism. However that moment may have signified something more. It may be that Trump’s nomination is transforming the Republican Party every bit as much as Barry Goldwater’s nomination did at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1964. It is possible we will see future Republicans borrow heavily from Donald Trump’s populism, while leaving behind the more divisive elements of his rhetoric. Trumpism indeed may be an evolving movement.
For old fashioned conservatives, vice presidential nominee Mike Pence delivered a speech that hit it out of the park. His self-effacing humility reminded us why Midwesterners may be the warmest people in the country. For Floridians, the night also included our own Sen. Marco Rubio videotaping his speech into the Convention Hall. I’m not sure it served Rubio well; the American people like someone who is all in or all out.
Thursday, Ivanka Trump lived up to her star billing, giving the most sparkling appeal to women and millennials of the whole week. But Donald Trump’s acceptance speech should not have surprised anyone. Why would a 70-year-old billionaire, who defied conventional thinking for 13 months to win the Republican presidential nomination, change now?
He’s drawing to an inside straight by doubling down on his campaign themes, painting a dark picture of America and strongly suggesting we need to turn inward. The America First themes are almost a repeat of the neo-isolationism of the Republican Party of 1940, and Trump echoed his campaign’s mantra of rigged systems, illegal immigration, fair trade and opposition to nation building. The only new overarching issue was law and order, in words reminiscent of Nixonian rhetoric circa 1968.
In Clinton’s coronation in Philadelphia this week, the speakers should play to her strength, which is policy and programs. In her speech, Clinton needs to tone down the high-pitched scolding and present her vision for America with humanity and humility. She needs to create dissonance between the picture Trump has painted of her — shrill, a shrew — and what voters see live on TV. It will be a challenge, but after Cleveland, this election is hers to lose.