What Worked at Trump’s Convention

DNC drama as Wasserman Schultz announces resignation; Trump's convention speech: How did it go over?; Cruz's future in doubt

The Briefing, Vol IV, Issue 30-

This week:

  •  DNC drama as Wasserman Schultz announces resignation
  •  Trump’s convention speech: How did it go over?
  •  Cruz’s future in doubt

Philadelphia: This week, the Democratic convention begins with drama. The abrupt announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz will resign next Friday arose from a leak of DNC emails showing her and other top staff plotting against and disparaging Bernie Sanders, at times rather brutally, in an effort to tip the scales in Hillary Clinton’s favor. The nastiest revelation shows them planning to impugn his Judaism, which he had never really played up in the first place.

Although it still seems unlikely to work, this plays right into Donald Trump’s assertions from earlier, that he could bring Sanders supporters to his side. The more likely outcome is that perhaps they will not unify behind Clinton in sufficient numbers or with sufficient enthusiasm.

This possibility is compounded by the choice of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a more centrist Democrat at least in tone, as Clinton’s running mate. More from Philly next week.

Cleveland: The Republican convention in Cleveland featured quite a bit of drama — perhaps more than any other presidential nominating convention in recent memory. But most of it won’t matter. What matters is how Donald Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, came across. The drama included but was not limited to:

  • Monday’s essentially lawless suppression of conservatives (including some Trump supporters) who wanted to vote on the convention rules. (More on this below.)

  • The plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech (finally admitted by a speechwriter in the Trump organization after a full controversy-filled day later).

  • Poor scheduling of speakers, so that uninteresting and unimportant ones addressed an empty auditorium at the end of Monday and Tuesday night’s programs.

  • Ted Cruz’s speech, which lacked an explicit endorsement of Trump.

  • The subsequent and very public repudiation of Cruz by party functionaries, which elicited from him an explicit un-endorsement.

Yes, this all happened, and none of it helped, but let’s get one thing clear: Not a week has passed, and all of this drama is basically ancient history by now.

To be sure, some of it might have dampened the overall positive impression the convention might have given, but really all that mattered was that Pence did competently and Trump did well. From that standpoint, Trump probably had a decent convention.

Pence’s speech, though perhaps overshadowed a bit by Cruz (or at least by the post-Cruz freakout), was excellent. Trump’s was perfect on paper, and adequate as delivered. The biggest problem with it was that his ad-libbing took some energy out of it and might have made it a bit too long for most Americans’ tastes at 76 minutes.

Still, it was fine, and by Trump standards, it was downright disciplined. It offered the most coherent statement so far of what Trump stands for, for a large audience, without any strange outbursts or comments that might that might have detracted from it.

  1. As we noted last week, Trump’s ace card is the law and order issue. He repeated the phrase “law and order” three times in his speech. This is a well from which Republicans drank heavily in the riotous late 1960s, and again in the high-crime era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with great success. They have since gone back to it to only on occasion. And in fact, there has been a shift away in recent years, as more conservatives have inured themselves to the idea of criminal justice reform.

    Trump will demonstrate this year whether this issue retains its power — and it well may, given the recent rash of Islamic and anti-police terrorism. In a way, given Trump’s newfound and dovish ideas on foreign policy, this provides a substitute in voters’ minds for the more bellicose foreign policy ideas of Republicans in years past, which evoked a similar toughness but in a different area.

  2. Trump’s ideas of immigration, as less controversially explained in his convention speech, align with the position most conservatives take, and with a position that many other Americans take. Neither of the major candidates necessarily represents the majority position on this issue that well. But Trump’s take, which ties the issue to that of law and order, is probably closer than the “no deportations at all” position that Clinton embraced in one of her debates with Bernie Sanders.

    It would have been a lot easier for him to express this view effectively if he had been more careful with his words earlier in the campaign (the “rapists” line and the “Mexican judge” don’t help here), but that’s water under the bridge. There is a constituency in the U.S. — including among those who supported the Bush-era attempt at immigration reform — that views the current non-enforcement situation and sanctuary cities, for example, as a threat to public safety.

  3. Trump’s anti-trade position is the great wildcard, because Republicans haven’t had a truly anti-trade nominee since the FDR era. This is the most unpredictable aspect of Trump’s candidacy.

    And it probably serves him well, from a purely political standpoint. The majority of Republicans who are willing to vote for Trump already but disagree with him on trade will not be dissuaded by this issue alone. The question is whether it draws in other voters who don’t normally back Republicans. Anti-trade sentiment is held most strongly among hard-left progressives (whom Trump is unlikely to sway) and older union-era Democrats (whom he might potentially sway). It’s anyone’s guess whether his message on this issue resonates with a significant number of people beyond his base.

  4. Media commentary that Trump’s speech was too “dark” is silly. He outlined the problems he believes the country faces. Given that a vast majority of Americans view the nation as being on the wrong track — whether or not they like Trump — this is a perfectly appropriate tone to take. The speech was arguably more positive than most of what he’s said in this election cycle so far.

  5. Trump’s usual ad-lib speeches have their own sort of appeal, but it is not a speaking style that works well when mixed in with a professionally crafted speech like the one he delivered on Thursday. By not strictly sticking to the written text, Trump lengthened the speech too much and sapped some of its energy.

  6. But this was hardly a fatal problem — on the whole, it surely did him good. Trump’s campaigners pointed immediately to a snap CNN poll that showed 56 percent of viewers said they were more likely to vote for Trump after seeing the speech, and only 10 percent less likely. That’s not bad at all. Polls over the weekend showed mixed results as to a Trump convention bounce.

Rules fight: Monday afternoon’s fight on the convention floor over the party rules should not be viewed through a Trump-antiTrump lens. In fact, some Trump supporters were among those trying to get a roll call vote on the rules, because the changes conservatives were demanding — and the ones that would have been more likely to succeed — did not all represent a rebellion against Trump.

What happened on Monday is that conservatives tried to force a roll call vote on the standing version of the party rules package. If successful, they could have proposed changes. The unbinding of delegates was never going to happen, but other proposed rule changes — particularly new limits on the ability of the Republican National Committee (a small body that meets more frequently) to change the rules — were supported more broadly.

In all likelihood, the establishment would have won a roll call vote, had it been allowed. But they were eager to avoid an appearance of disunity, and so the RNC regulars under Reince Priebus deputized Trump’s campaign to prevent it from happening. By hiding, RNC convention officials the one hand prevented at least two states from submitting their petitions in time to get a vote. For those nine states that did submit valid petitions, they sent a small army of lobbyists and other Trump backers to whip the signatories into withdrawing their signatures, using threats (they allegedly threatened Iowa’s delegation with the loss of their first-in-the-nation caucus) and promises.

In the end, by ignoring some state petitions, undoing others, and refusing to recognize delegates on the floor, RNC and Trump forces crushed the rebellion, at the expense of following the convention rules. This was a defeat not for anti-Trump forces, but for conservatives in general who believe the RNC wields too much power. It also sent a sour message to anyone paying very close attention to the convention, but it was all probably too inside-baseball to dampen the overall effect of the convention for most viewers.

Ted Cruz: There is a good argument to make that if you’re not going to endorse, you shouldn’t speak at the convention.

That said, if RNC and Trump campaign bosses had just taken Ted Cruz’s speech in stride — saying that was “close enough” to an endorsement — the whole affair probably would have blown over much better for everyone involved. Instead, they attacked him brutally, prompting him to issue an actual un-endorsement of Trump the following day. This was clumsy, and a mistake on their part.

Cruz, however, might have made the bigger mistake. Some number of conservatives were surely happy with what Cruz did, and others — including some of his own supporters from the primary — were not. But even if you view a refusal to back Trump as laudable and principled, that doesn’t mean this will be good for Cruz’s career. In fact, it’s likely to cause him a lot of trouble, beginning with a possible 2018 primary challenge, possibly from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Assuming Trump loses this year, it’s highly unlikely that Cruz will end up being the standard bearer for the party’s anti-Trump faction forces in 2020 or beyond. After all, one reason Cruz offered during the primaries for not dropping out and deferring to Marco Rubio to stop Trump was that his own supporters would most likely go over to Trump anyway if he did. How do those former supporters who still sympathized with Trump view Cruz now?

If he hadn’t wanted to endorse Trump, Cruz probably should have followed the example of John Kasich, who simply stayed away from the convention and instead attended events focused on electing other Republicans. The Trump campaign unwisely took potshots at him too, but they were not nearly as big a deal. More importantly, Kasich managed to avoid making himself the story.

A few other notes:

  • Immediately after Cruz’s speech, Trump’s tweet contained both criticism of Cruz and an attempt to treat the matter as not too big a deal.

  • The day after the convention, Trump seemed unable to slough off Cruz’s slight, choosing a public forum to relitigate his comments about Cruz’s father assassinating JFK. This is deeply counterproductive. If he wants to win, Trump needs to avoid putting vengeance over victory.

  • The DNC email scandal is a big deal. Sanders backers are upset, and at just the right time to cause Clinton trouble. What’s more, the attempt by Clinton’s campaign manager to blame the leakers (or Russia) rather than own up to what’s contained in the leaks is rather weak. But the question remains whether a few kind words from the Obamas later this week will be enough to mollify them.