Political stunts, missed opportunities, and compassionate conservatism

Political stunts, missed opportunities, and compassionate conservatismAugust 26, 2020

Finally, someone made the convention feel conventional.

After two nights of unusual programming — a blend of obsequious Trump tributes, apocalyptic warnings and inspired testimonials from average Americans — first lady Melania Trump restored a sense of normalcy Tuesday night, closing the GOP convention’s second act with a speech that was remarkable for its restraint and deliberate adherence to etiquette.

“I don’t want to use this precious time attacking the other side, because as we saw last week that kind of talk only serves to divide the country further,” she said. “I’m here because we need my husband to be our president and commander in chief for four more years.”

The first lady showed self-awareness in presenting herself as the calm, soothing counterpart to her famously (but, she stressed, not dangerously) volatile husband. Perhaps sensing that the country is desperate for a break from the gusher of bad news, for a reprieve from the polarization and tribal politics that invited her relocation to Washington four years ago, Melania Trump embraced the role of stateswoman on Tuesday, offering a pacifying commentary that could have easily been spoken by any former First Lady.

“I’d like to call on the citizens of this country to take a moment, pause, and look at things from all perspectives. I urge people to come together in a civil manner so we can work and live up to our standard American ideals,” she said. “I have reflected on the racial unrest in our country. It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history. … Stop the violence and looting being done in the name of justice, and never make assumptions based on the color of a person’s skin.”


Perhaps recognizing how inconsistent such ideals are with her husband’s own record of conduct and rhetoric, the First Lady noted, “We all know Donald Trump makes no secret about how he feels about things. Total honesty is what we as citizens deserve as president; whether you like it or not, you always know what he’s thinking, and that is because he’s an authentic person who loves this country and its people.”

These are tough times to sell a product like Donald Trump, an incumbent president struggling to handle multiple overlapping crises. What Melania Trump showed Tuesday night was that, for all the doubts of her political acumen, she can make lemonade better than anyone—using the perch of the president’s office to preach the sort of unity her husband struggles with, explaining that the words on her lips are really a reflection of his heart.

Here are some other takeaways from Tuesday night:

11:10 p.m. ET

I’m pretty sure nobody outside of Kentucky had heard the name Daniel Cameron prior to Tuesday night.

They’ve heard it now — and they won’t soon forget it.

It was fair to wonder, when Tuesday’s lineup was announced, why Republicans rewarded the virtually unknown Kentucky attorney general with a coveted speaking slot teeing up Mike Pompeo and Melania Trump. But it quickly became apparent when Cameron stepped to the lectern.

His presence was immediate. His cadence was impeccable. His innate abilities as an orator were evident from the jump. Political phenoms don’t come around often — but you know them when you see them. There could be no doubt on Tuesday night: Daniel Cameron is a political phenom.

Cameron has obvious gifts that would make him a star-in-making under any circumstance. A native of Louisville, Cameron worked as legal counsel to Senate Majority Leader (and fellow Kentuckian) Mitch McConnell after graduating from the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law.

That’s an impressive resume for a guy who’s just 34 years old. But even more impressive was his cool under the bright lights of primetime on Tuesday. Far smaller stages have thrown far more practiced politicians for a loop. But Cameron looked right at home.

Cameron is just 34 years old. It’s overkill to compare his breakout performance to that of Barack Obama at the 2004 convention, an obvious parallel but one that is fundamentally unfair. (Obama brought tens of thousands of people to their feet; Cameron was speaking to an empty auditorium.) Still, when the story of the 2020 Republican convention is written, Cameron will be a starring character.

This much seems certain: We haven’t seen the last of Daniel Cameron in primetime.

10:31 p.m. ET

Five years of opinion polls say that President Trump is not well liked. He is not seen as honest. He is not viewed as trustworthy. He is not widely considered to be an ethical person.

One would think, then, that Republicans would be eager to challenge the popular portrayals of him and show a different side of the president. Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise, two of the president’s loyalists on Capitol Hill, took a whack at this on Monday night, telling stories of the president’s compassion and friendship and lending human dimension to his character.

But on Tuesday night, there was virtually nothing offered on this front — which was made all the more surprising by the fact that two of Trump’s children gave lengthy speeches.

Tiffany Trump, the president’s youngest daughter, made repeated references to “my father.” But it was always to tout his political chops — “My father built a thriving economy once,” “My father was the only person to challenge the establishment” — and never to shed any light on him as a person, as a dad. If you took out the references to “My father,” the substance of Tiffany Trump’s speech could have been delivered by anyone else this week. She offered no intimate insights into a man she knows better than almost any other person alive.

Eric Trump, the president’s middle son, didn’t do much more in this regard.

Late in his speech, Eric Trump said, “In closing, I’d like to speak directly to my father. I miss working alongside you every day but I’m damn proud to be on the front lines of this fight.” Then, nodding toward the recent death of the president’s brother, he added, “Dad, let’s make Uncle Robert proud: Let’s go get another 4 years. I love you very much.”

This brief personal note was the most memorable line of the speech. And it made all the more conspicuous the lack of attempts Tuesday night to humanize the president.

10:22 p.m. ET

Here’s another convention first, and a visual masterstroke from Team Trump: Tuesday’s program showed the president overseeing the naturalization ceremony of five immigrants, congratulating them on becoming U.S. citizens during a primetime broadcast.

To be clear: This was a naked political stunt, meant to show voters that Trump, who has used harsh and demeaning rhetoric about immigrants, is really quite accepting of and accommodating to new Americans of color.

Not all political stunts are smart or well-executed. This one was both.

With the acting secretary of Homeland Security serving as emcee — raising questions, no doubt, about the legality of a government official working on behalf of a campaign — Trump went down the line of the five new citizens, telling their stories. All five were people of color. One of the women wore a head scarf; another wore a sari.

It was, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said, a “patriotic celebration.” Trump concurred, welcoming the five people to “our great American family” and telling them, “It’s an honor to be your president.”

Just as with Trump’s earlier surprise — bestowing a presidential pardon on a black ex-felon — this scene will serve two purposes. In the short term, it will grab headlines and prompt conversation about a softer side of the president. In the longer term, the sharply-produced videos will be of enormous value on social media and in TV commercials as Trump’s campaign seeks to make inroads with the voters most likely to be moved: the college-educated white suburbanites who want a diverse America and an empathetic president.

9:46 p.m. ET

If the target demographic of Monday night’s program was a mystery, Tuesday night’s programming felt aimed squarely at one group of voters: social conservatives.

The night began with a prayer from Norma Urrabazo, a Las Vegas pastor, who asked for “healing and comfort to Jacob Blake and his family,” referring to the unarmed black man who was shot this week by a white police officer in Wisconsin.

Next came an emotional scene in which Trump offered a presidential pardon to an ex-felon who gave his life to Jesus while in prison and started a ministry for ex-prisoners when he got out.

Little noticed was Rand Paul’s mention of “medical mission” trips to Guatemala and Haiti and how Trump supported them. That language, to church-going evangelicals, will sound familiar.

A short while later, Cissie Graham Lynch, the granddaughter of famed evangelist Billy Graham, delivered a forceful endorsement of Trump and described him as a “fierce advocate” for Christian conservative values. She rattled off the ways in which he has fought for them: “He appointed judges who respect the First Amendment. He supported religious beliefs in court. He ensured religious ministries would not be forced to violate their beliefs. He withdrew the policies that placed our little girls at risk.” She then closed by quoting her grandfather, and declared, “I hope and pray you will join me in voting to re-elect President Trump.”

The most visceral appeal came from Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee who is now an outspoken anti-abortion activist. Describing the “racist roots” of her former employer — music to the ears of the religious right — Johnson detailed the alleged horrors she saw, heard and smelled inside of abortion clinics. She concluded that, “I support President Trump because he’s done more for the unborn than any other President,” and added, “This election is a choice between two radical, anti-life activists, and the most pro-life President we’ve ever had. That’s something that should compel you to action.”

Piggybacking on the theme of abortion, the next speaker, Nick Sandmann, explained that what brought him to Washington in the first place—before his infamous viral episode on the National Mall—was the March for Life, “where I demonstrated in defense of the unborn.” Tying the mission of that demonstration to his support for Trump, Sandmann explained, “I bought a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat because our President, Donald Trump, has distinguished himself as the most pro-life Presidents in the history of our country and I wanted to express my support for him too.” Then, speaking implicitly to the narrative among social conservatives that they are under siege for their beliefs, Sandmann said, “Looking back now, how could I possibly have imagined that the simple act of putting on that red hat would unleash the hate from the left and make myself the target of network and cable news networks, nationwide?”

All this, in the first hour of programming.

Politics is about building a coalition—and the cornerstone of any coalition is a base. Trump can’t think about expanding his coalition this fall until he’s secured the support of his base. In that sense, the consistent, coordinated messaging Tuesday night made perfect sense.

9:21 p.m. ET

White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow has been known to put his foot in his mouth, particularly over the past six months as the Trump administration has struggled to thwart the Covid-19 pandemic, but Tuesday night’s performance was a uniquely questionable.

Consider the following statements:

— “We still have a lot of hardship, and we have a lot of heartbreak in many areas. But we’ve hit a turning point. And now the recovery has begun.”

— “There’s a big change in attitude happening. The American Spirit is picking up.”

— “Get ready for a big third and fourth quarter, folks.”

— “Biden is backing over $3 trillion in tax hikes. You’re coming out of a pandemic, and he wants to raise taxes? That’s crazy.”

What do they have in common? All of these statements from Kudlow assume that Covid-19 has come and gone; that the threat is behind us; that America is out of the woods and needs to focus on rebuilding.

In fact, we’re not out of the woods — there is no sign of a significant, sustained downturn in the spread of Covid-19. And the reality is, when Americans are polled, majorities don’t believe we’re in the rebuilding stage. Rather, they want the government to focus on—and do much better with—efforts to slow the virus.

The administration was dealt a brutal election-year hand with Covid-19. Trump can be excused for wanting to shift the country’s attention from 180,000 deaths to signs of economic recovery. But the truth is, there can be no real recovery without first containing the virus. And every time someone like Kudlow pretends that we’ve turned the corner — when we clearly have not — he’s doing a disservice not only to his boss but to the American public.

9:07 p.m. ET

Here’s some catnip for the white evangelical Christians who overwhelmingly supported the president in 2016 (81 percent, per exit polls) and have remained his most steadfast bloc of support: Trump pardoning a convicted felon during the GOP convention after a story of how the man became “born again” and turned his life around.

“Not so long ago, my life was running from the police, fearing the police, and avoiding the police,” said Jon Ponder, a middle-aged black man, introducing himself to a national audience. “I had allowed animosity to grow inside of me, making me believe that they were my enemy. But today, I’m filled with hope. I have been given a second chance. My transformation began in a prison cell. I gave my life to Jesus.”

Rich Beasley, a retired white FBI agent, shared the screen with Ponder, telling the story of arresting him for a bank robbery 15 years ago. When Ponder was released, Beasley said, the ex-con “was a different man. He talked about starting a re-entry program for men and women coming out of prison. He knew he could make a difference in the lives of ex-offenders.”

Standing with the president, he two men touted legislation Trump signed to reform parts of the criminal justice system. Then, in an apparent surprise, Trump announced his pardon of Ponder, leaving the man in tears.

It was a highly effective moment. Not only did the segment serve as a reminder of Trump’s lone bipartisan achievement; it also hearkened back to the days of “compassionate conservatism” under George W. Bush, when the 43rd president made prisoner re-entry programs a staple of his domestic agenda.

Nobody will confuse Trump with Bush as far as their attitudes toward minorities and policymaking priorities. Still, Trump was smart to deliver a feel-good, made-for-social-media-sharing moment for a Christian conservative base that needs some energizing at the moment.

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