GOP attacks Biden’s faith even as Pence shows his: Takeaways from RNC Night 3August 27, 2020
“My fellow Americans, we are going through a time of testing,” the vice president hummed in his customary solemn tone. “But if you look through the fog of these challenging times, you will see our flag is still there.”
Rarely has such a splendid metaphor been conjured so unwittingly. Mike Pence was right. Through the rhetorical fog of his acceptance speech — 37 minutes of paeans to Americana and warnings of his noble countrymen under siege from the socialist left — the only thing visible was the flag.
Nowhere to be seen was a policy proposal, a specific set of ideas to sell to the masses, or an overarching vision for governing the country and improving voters’ lives over the next four years. The only thing discernible was symbolic populism, a comically ambiguous pledge to “make America great again, again.”
Pence noted how Democrats, at their convention, “didn’t talk much about their agenda, and if I were them, I wouldn’t want to either.” It’s true that Democrats went light on policy; it’s also true that Joe Biden has some semblance of a legislative wish list he hopes to pursue as president. Meanwhile, to watch Pence speak Wednesday night was to witness precisely what I described in “The Grand Old Meltdown.”
The vice president barely even bothered to speak in vague, non-committal terms about what Americans could expect by way of policy over the next four years. Instead, he spent the bulk of his speech flattering President Trump (35 mentions in 37 minutes), touting the accomplishments of the administration’s first term and contrasting them against Biden’s record.
It’s customary — and effective — for a politician to draw these distinctions. Pence is a gifted attack dog for a guy who once swore off negative campaigning. His calm demeanor and “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed” routine likely plays well with certain voters. The problem is, all of the comparing and contrasting Pence did was backward-looking. Almost every single action-oriented argument he made for Trump was rooted in the past tense: “cut … achieved … fought for … secured … has been.”
To the extent Pence offered promises of concrete improvements to come, it was that Trump would rebuild the economy and deliver “the world’s first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year.” This was perhaps the most specific pledge we’ve heard all week, but it’s a rhetorical check that the administration might not be able to cash.
Beyond that, Pence devoted his remarks to stoking a sense of cultural unease on the right. He positioned himself and Trump as bulwarks against the creeping menace of secular socialism. He tipped his cap to the Star Spangled Banner and called on Americans to “do their part to defend freedom.” He advised his countrymen to “fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents.” He claimed that at stake in this election is “not so much whether America will be more conservative or more liberal, more Republican or more Democrat. The choice in this election Is whether America remains America.”
It’s safe to say America is going to remain America no matter who wins in November. It’s also safe to say Mike Pence is going to remain Mike Pence.
Any expectation that the vice president would use this keynote as a launching pad — to distinguish his brand ever so subtly from Trumpism, to forge his own hybrid appeal that mixes populist nationalism with intellectual conservatism — was sorely misplaced. After four years of being depicted as a lonely traditionalist, a somewhat reluctant subject of the MAGA court, Pence showed the world on Wednesday that this is his permanent political residence. Rather than trying to stand out, he was content to fit in. Instead of projecting confidence and optimism, he settled for scare tactics. “The hard truth is,” Pence said, lowering his voice, “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
It’s the culmination of a long, winding political journey for Mike Pence: from folksy radio host, to ideologically-charged congressman, to occasionally pragmatic governor, to proud sidekick of the man who remade the Republican Party into something Pence never could have imagined. If there was any smoldering doubt about Pence’s comfort with that transformation — his and the party’s — Wednesday’s speech stomped it out for good.
10:43 p.m. ET
It seems that every nominating convention features a single line, a single catch-phrase, that gets used and re-used to the point of echoing in viewers’ ears by the time the event has wrapped up.
In 2012, it was “You didn’t build that” — the quote from Barack Obama, taken somewhat out of context, that Republicans recited approximately one thousand times over the course of four days to argue that the president was hostile to small businesses.
In 2016 it was “Lock her up,” from General Michael Flynn about Hillary Clinton.
This time, it’s an abbreviated quote from Joe Biden: “You ain’t Black.”
The remark came at the end of a testy interview between Biden and Charlamagne tha God, a popular black radio host who pressed the Democratic nominee on his commitment to the Black community. When the host expressed disappointment that Biden’s time was up, saying he had more questions to ask, Biden told him, “You’ve got more questions? Well I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
Biden came under immediate heat for the comment and quickly apologized. But it has provided valuable ammunition for Republicans to argue that Democrats in general — and Biden in particular — are taking Black voters for granted.
From what I’ve seen, every single Black speaker at the GOP convention — and if I recall, at least one or two white speakers — slammed Biden for the “you ain’t Black” quote. That it has become a staple of the programming reflects well on the people who produced it: Never before has a Republican convention featured so many Black speakers, and clearly, the attack carries far more weight coming from them.
It surely is maddening to Democrats, who have made Trump’s racist rhetoric a foundation of their appeal not only to minority voters but to college-educated whites, that Republicans are turning the tables and accusing their nominee of racial antagonism. But there can be no question: Biden brought this on himself.
“Truly stunning how many Black folks at the RNC reference Biden’s ‘ain’t Black’ comment, and no matter how opportunistic they’re being, they’re not wrong,” tweeted Briahna Joy Gray, the national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. “Biden gave them that ammunition when he decided he didn’t have to earn the Black vote.”
10:15 p.m. ET
But Wednesday night feels a lot more like Monday than Tuesday. The production value is decent enough, but things are moving awfully slow, and there hasn’t been any change of pace to keep the audience engaged. It’s a surprising step back after Tuesday’s relative success.
We’re entering the stretch now, so don’t expect any major surprises — just a few more speeches before Vice President Mike Pence delivers the nightcap.
9:58 p.m. ET
Republicans aren’t just using the issue of abortion to argue for a second Trump term — they’re wielding it subtly as a weapon to undermine the religious bona fides of Joe Biden, a lifelong Roman Catholic.
Sister Dede Byrne, a nun who belongs to the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and once attended medical school at Georgetown, delivered one of the most direct appeals on the issue of abortion that I can remember.
“As Christians, we first met Jesus as a stirring embryo in the womb of an unwed mother and saw him born nine months later in the poverty of the cave. It’s no coincidence that Jesus stood up for what was just and was ultimately crucified because what he said wasn’t politically correct or fashionable,” she said. “As followers of Christ, we are called to stand up for life and against the politically correct or fashionable today. We must fight against a legislative agenda that supports and even celebrates destroying life in the womb.”
She added: “Which brings me to why I’m here tonight. Donald Trump is the most pro-life president that this nation has ever had, defending life at all stages. His belief in the sanctity of life transcends politics. President Trump will stand up against Biden/Harris who are the most anti-life presidential ticket ever, even supporting the horrors of late-term abortion and infanticide.”
The claim that Trump is “the most pro-life President that this nation has ever had” is undisputed in the anti-abortion community. More than George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, activists say, Trump has consistently and forcefully backed their policies and legislative priorities. It’s one thing to hear this from a lawmaker or grassroots organizer; the assertion carries more heft coming from a nun.
Sister Byrne could have left it there, but the contrast she drew between Trump and Biden — using equally definitive language, calling him “the most anti-life” presidential nominee ever, will raise more than a few eyebrows in the Catholic community.
It wasn’t accidental that her speech was allowed by an appearance from Lou Holtz, the famed Notre Dame football coach. He picked up right where Sister Byrne left off.
“One of the important reasons he has my trust is because nobody has been a stronger advocate for the unborn than President Trump,” Holtz said. “The Biden-Harris ticket is the most radically pro-abortion campaign in history. They and other politicians are ‘Catholics in Name Only’ and abandon innocent lives. President Trump protects those lives.”
I’ve covered abortion politics for a long, long time. “Catholics in Name Only” is something I’ve never heard before. And my guess is that the one-two punch of Holtz and Sister Byrne will make for a popular video package that will be circulating among Catholics before week’s end.
9:35 p.m. ET
It turns out, there may be a better way to reach the “suburban housewives of America,” on whom Trump has focused recently, than Twitter.
If Tuesday night’s GOP convention messaging was targeted toward energizing a loyal bloc of supporters, the religious right, Wednesday’s programming aimed to stop the bleeding with arguably the most important demographic in this election: suburban women.
Rather than rely on scare tactics to woo these voters, as the president is wont to do, Republicans deployed a series of women who attempted to connect on an intimate, emotional level with these voters.
There was Tera Myers, a mom who shared the story of learning that she was pregnant with a child who had Down Syndrome and encouraged by her doctor to terminate the pregnancy. “I knew my baby was a human being created by God and that made him worthy of life,” Myers said. “I am thankful that President Trump values the life of the unborn.”
There was Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, telling of her agonizing decision to undergo a preventative mastectomy — and how “days later, as I recovered, my phone rang. It was President Trump, calling to check on me. I was blown away.” She also told of the president’s interest in her family: “When I started working for President Trump, my husband and I became pregnant with our first child, I would see President Trump at rallies. He would routinely ask me how my baby was doing.”
There was the second lady, Karen Pence, who drew attention to the “military spouses” — more precisely, military wives — who “experience frequent moves, job changes, periods of being a single parent while their loved one is deployed, all while exhibiting pride, strength, and determination and being a part of something bigger than themselves.”
The second lady also celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the the 19th Amendment and what it means to her as a mother: “Because of heroes like Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone, women today, like our daughters, Audrey and Charlotte, and future generations, will have their voices heard and their votes count.”
Finally, capping off this first-hour thematic blitz, there was Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, who told of how “Trump helped me shatter a barrier in the world of politics by empowering me to manage his campaign to its successful conclusion.”
Recalling how she was” raised in a household of all women” who were “self-reliant and resilient,” Conway tipped her cap to the mothers, particularly the single mothers, “who nurture us, who shape us, and who believe in us.” Conway made a final point that hasn’t been mentioned much, if at all, during the convention: that Trump has taken a special interest in combating opioid addiction.
It’s unclear how effective this messaging will be. But it’s perfectly clear who it’s aimed at
9:05 p.m. ET
I believe we have a first at the 2020 Republican convention: a featured speaker who did not utter the name of the president.
Dan Crenshaw, a freshman Republican congressman from Texas, gave a fine speech paying tribute to the “heroes” in our midst — the theme of Night 3. Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL who was injured during his third deployment in Afghanistan, told the story of a fallen comrade. He heralded the parents educating their kids at home. He saluted the nurses working around the clock to help Covid-19 patients.
The one “hero” Crenshaw didn’t name — or even make reference to — was Donald Trump.
I’m not sure if that omission was deliberate. But at a convention that has been defined by rhetorical presence of the president, it was conspicuous.
Women in power
The lineup Wednesday was dominated by female voices: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, among others.
If portions of Tuesday’s programming — the pardon of a black ex-convict, the naturalization ceremony of five people of color — were meant to combat the narrative of Trump being a racist, then the heavy presence of conservative women on Wednesday suggested an effort to neutralize allegations of presidential sexism and misogyny.
At the halfway point, this convention hadn’t featured a whole lot of speeches from elected officials. What’s particularly notable is that Republicans have made scarce efforts to promote their up-and-coming crop of future party leaders. That will change Wednesday night.
A host of 40-and-under Republican officeholders will take the stage on night three, including Stefanik, Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, New York Rep. Lee Zeldin. Also featured was 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn, the Republican nominee for Congress in North Carolina’s 11th District.
How these and other young Republicans perform this week will give a good window into the quality of the party’s farm system, which will be tested in the post-Trump era.