A postscript to the 2016 Republican National Convention: just how is the wide of a gulf between a Fourth Estate that nitpicked and nunchucked the Republicans’ every move in Cleveland and a viewing audience drawn to this convention’s more forthright rhetoric?
That includes Donald Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday night.
Critics of the Republican presidential nominee wasted no time relegating it to history’s dustbin.
But here’s what they missed (and, no, I’m not a Trump supporter): for a guy who calls Manhattan and Palm Beach home Trump sounded an awful lot like a bridge-and-tunnel guy in touch with working-class concerns.
Which is precisely what he set out do, in Thursday prime time.
Here’s one way to assess Trump’s big speech: how it stacks up against four previous GOP nominees.
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Barry Goldwater, 1964. Like Trump, Goldwater faced a divided party – moderate Republicans who saw the GOP as hijacked by the far right.
Read the famous “extremism in the defense of liberty” speech and it’s clear: Goldwater was as much interested in defining the GOP as he was championing freedom.
“Republican”, or some variation of the word, came up 34 times in a 40-minute address.
In Ohio, land of the late Robert Taft, Trump didn’t try to position himself as the new “Mr. Republican”. He mentioned the word twice in the opening moments of his speech and only once long after that.
For those of you keeping score at home, there also was zero mention of “conservative” or “Ted Cruz”.
This speech wasn’t about establishing an ideological beachhead within the Republican Party, so let’s move on to…
George H.W. Bush, 1988. If Goldwater was about the movement; Bush 41’s speech was all about a man with a purpose – a former torpedo bomber pilot who, in his words, “sees life in terms of missions – missions defined and missions completed”.
Trump’s speech took a similar flight path: “I have had a truly great life in business,” he declared. “But now, my sole and exclusive missions is to go to work for our country – to go to work for you. It’s time to deliver for the American people.”
Ironic, given Trump’s toxic relationship with Jeb, there was one other Bush influence in Trump’s speech: branding.
George W. Bush, 2000. Befitting the first Republican president of the Information Age, Bush 43’s speech was an attempt at recast the GOP in the candidate’s more compassionate image.
In Bush’s words: “Everyone, from immigrant to entrepreneur, has an equal claim on this country’s promise.” Preceded by: “I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect.”
Trump tried the same in Cleveland – not seeking a group hug (though he did utter “compassionate” once, with regard to immigration laws), but instead casting himself as a needed combatant on the side of “the American people”. Trump’s villains: “big business”, “special interests”, “elite media” and “major donors”, he said, all backing Hillary Clinton to preserve an economic and political system, in his words, “rigged to their benefit”.
Trump made it clear there will be a new sheriff in town: “I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country”.
And in case you missed it the first time, a few moments later: “In this race for the White House, I am the law-and-order candidate”.
In this regard, what we discovered at a national convention with little to show in the way of bloodlines – no Bushes, no Mitt Romney, no John McCain, and little mention of Ronald Reagan – is Trump having Republican ancestry…
Richard Nixon, 1968. Befitting a nominee with a troubled soul but the most accurate of political compasses, Nixon’s speech was spot-on for a nation wracked with domestic and foreign turmoil.
Nearly a half-century ago, Nixon singled out “forgotten Americans” chafed by economic hardship, racial tension, disrespect of the law, cultural decay and the nation’s inability to wage war effectively.
“Every day I wake up determined to deliver a better life for the people all across this nation that have been ignored, neglected and abandoned.”
“I have visited the laid-off factory workers,” he continued, “and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals.”
“These are the forgotten men and women of our
country. People who work hard but no longer have a
“I am your voice.”
Trump echoed Nixon foreign policy, making Clinton/Obama his Humphrey/Johnson for leading the nation on a host of foreign policy follies — ISIS, Egypt, Libya and a host of overseas follies.
There was no declaration that Clinton has blood on her hands, as on Monday night, but there was this brutal summation: “This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death,
destruction, terrorism and weakness.”
Finally, the similarity between Nixon and Trump’s closing passages.
Nixon: “The time has come for us to leave the valley of despair and climb the mountain so that we may see the glory of the dawn – a new day for America, and a new dawn for peace and freedom in the world.”
Trump: “History is watching us now. It’s waiting to see if we will rise to the occasion and if we will show the whole world that America is still free and independent and strong.”
Trump didn’t plagiarize Nixon’s remarks, but one thing he did lift: bumper stickers. Trump-Pence and Nixon-Agnew are all five-letter names.
One last observation: we’ve never had an election like this in modern times – two nominees so engrained in the nation’s mindset, both deeply unpopular.
It begs the question of a post-convention “bounce” – since 1968, all non-incumbent presidential winners have picked up at least 4 points in the immediate aftermath of their acceptance speeches.
Mitt Romney didn’t get much of one in Tampa, back in 2012. I’ll wager Trump does. Why? The speech connected. Replace Trump with a less controversial figure and it really connects in a time when voters are down on individuals and institutions.
But bounces can be fleeting. If one considers that every presidential gets four bites out of the apple – the day they announce, the day they clinch the nomination, the night they accept it at the national convention, and finally the three fall debates.
This may prove to be an election with the winner determined by what those debates yield, and what events overtake the candidates closer to Election Day – violence at home, unrest overseas.
The national conventions are important milestones, but not necessarily crucial to the cause.
And the blunt talk, mini-controversies and odd political-celebrity hybrid that is the Trump show?
It’s over, in Cleveland.
With another 15 weeks to play out.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.