Americans claim to want their politicians to be “authentic.” Even if the authenticity comes by way of Hollywood (like Ronald Reagan’s aw-shucks, cowboy hero persona) or Madison Avenue (Bill Clinton’s rural roots in “a place called Hope”).
That’s one of the things I’ve heard over and over from Donald Trump supporters. Some concede he’s a bigot, others admit he’s a bully and a blowhard, many acknowledge he’s a narcissist of the first order. But they like how he’s willing to “stick it” to “them.” The “them” is elites (however you choose to define them), minorities, foreigners, Muslims, the “politically correct,” even his fellow Republicans.
Hillary Clinton has a problem with this concept of being “real.” Many voters remain uncertain of who she is at her core, what she believes in, who she trusts, or if she can be trusted. Only 30 percent of Americans consider her honest and trustworthy, according to a pre-convention CNN poll. It’s imperative for Clinton to use her week in the national media spotlight to shift public perceptions of her, if she is to win what is now a close race with Trump.
On the first day of the convention, Team Clinton may have tried too hard. Message: she cares. Message: She’s passionate about people’s problems. Most of the speeches were too smooth and too predictable. (Exceptions: Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders. More on that later.)
“Every speech here feels vetted to death,” Adam Nagourney, Los Angeles bureau chief of the New York Times, wrote during a convention liveblog. “I’m sure they have an extensive speech reviewing-shop.”
The action on the convention podium was disciplined and carefully scripted, even if the crowd was raucous and often off-script. Somehow, the DNC managed to squeeze the intelligent ridicule out of Al Franken. Instead of coming off as clever, he came off as somebody reading a speech written by someone else, which it undoubtedly was.
The most unscripted moment of the event came when Franken and comedian Sarah Silverman were directed to waste time so that ’60s music legend Paul Simon could get comfortable at his piano. She filled the “dead time” with a pointed message to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd: “You’re being ridiculous.”
Franken, who became famous as a political commentator by roasting Rush Limbaugh as “a big, fat idiot,” looked momentarily stunned. Then the convention returned to script.
The most effective scripted moments came during First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech. In a speech praised by political analysts from both parties, she described her life in the White House and its impact on her family. In a gentle reminder that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, she noted that the 2016 election will determine “who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.” She also noted politely that you can’t solve complex policy problems in 140 characters.
“Michelle Obama tonight delivered one of the best speeches I have ever seen in my career in politics,” former George W. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon wrote on his Facebook page.
Obama was followed by a keynote address by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was predictable in her attacks on Trump and her “proud” support of Hillary.
(The password of the night was “proud.” Democrats are proud of Hillary.)
Warren’s address, which did not receive nearly the applause of Obama’s, served as a bridge to Bernie Sanders’ gracious speech endorsing Clinton. The Vermont senator spent 30 minutes making the case both for Clinton and against Trump, all the while thanking his supporters in the Democrats’ socialist, populist revolution. It was no concession speech. He conceded no ground. But he did advance the cause of party unity.
One Sanders speech is unlikely to mollify his hard-core supporters. Acrimony was evident everywhere on Monday. In state delegation meetings. On the steamy streets of Philadelphia. And in a convention hall that was packed (unlike Cleveland), but abnormally unresponsive to speakers’ calls for unity — at least until Obama and Sanders came along late in prime time.
“It was a rough day earlier on,” Senate Democratic Leader-in-Waiting Chuck Schumer admitted on NBC. But it could have been worse, he quickly added: “Compare this to Ted Cruz”
If this was your first time watching a national convention, you might think these public displays of division are bad news for Democrats’ hopes of winning. But for those of us who’ve seen Democratic schisms in the past, this was relatively mild. Past divisions have been deeper and far more fundamental. Take it from this Republican activist:
Let’s be honest. This is a hot mess, but they’re Democrats. They care about winning. They’re like that. By then end it’ll be a lovefest.
— Rick Wilson (@TheRickWilson) July 26, 2016
Team Hillary hopes that’s the case.
A national presidential nominating convention is supposed to help the party’s candidate win the general election.
Since I started watching political conventions in 1968 (and attending at least one each campaign since 1976), there have been only two exceptions: the 1968 Democratic disaster in Chicago, and the 1972 Democratic chaos-fest in Miami.
After one day, I’m prepared to say that the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland could join this short and ignominious list.
Day One of the GOP convention did nothing to help Donald Trump appeal to undecided voters. It did nothing to reassure wavering Republicans or independents who dislike both GOP nominee-to-be Donald Trump and Democratic nominee-in-waiting Hillary Clinton.
And that was before the plagiarism thing.
From the early morning, the Trump campaign seemed to be trying its best to sabotage its stated Day One message of national security. At a breakfast meeting with reporters, its campaign chief picked an unnecessary fight with Ohio Gov. John Kasich by insulting the popular governor of a state he needs to win to have any plausible shot at an Electoral College majority. Paul Manafort’s unforced error drew a fast and furious rebuke from the Ohio Republican Party chair. Suffice it to say that Ohio Republicans will concentrate their efforts and passions on re-electing endangered incumbent Sen. Rob Portman now, rather than the presidential race.
Later in the morning, in an episode I missed until it was pointed out on Twitter by ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum, Team Trump forced the GOP to tear up its platform to excise a section that might ruffle the feathers of one Vladimir Putin. Kowtowing to the Russian leader is not exactly the image of strong American leadership. Hard-core Trumpistas won’t care, but undecided voters won’t be impressed.
To further alienate Jewish voters, the Republican National Committee had to shut down a convention live chat during a speech by former Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle (who happens to be Jewish) when it was bombarded by pro-Trump, pro-Hitler, profanely anti-Jewish ranters, according to a report in the Times of Israel.
And then there was a white supremacist riff from Iowa Congressman Steve King, who belittled all contributions to global civilization from non-white, non-Christian humans. “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” he asked on MSNBC, setting off a hourlong tweet storm in the Twitterverse.
Before the prime-time speeches, Republicans had a Democrat-like rumble over convention rules. It reminded me a little of Chicago 1968, when Mayor Daley had the microphones turned off on anti-war, anti-Humphrey delegations. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus’ team played hardball to prevent an actual recorded vote that would have shown the world the level of dissatisfaction with Trump among convention delegates.
You have to divide the evening session into three parts: pre-Melania, Melania and after Melania.
Pre-Melania was red-meat rhetoric for Trump Lovers and Hillary Haters. Also birthers. One speaker said Obama was certainly a Muslim. Several called for throwing Clinton in jail. Rudy Giuliani is passionate, and he hates Hillary Clinton, but there’s nothing he said that would convince wavering voters why they should vote for Trump. Indeed, I didn’t hear a single Trump policy initiative from any speaker.
Post-Melania was a sleeping pill for America. Rising star Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa was pushed out of prime time by a rambling, never-ending speech by an obscure military guy named Flynn. Don’t think this will launch a speaking career for him. And Ernst, speaking to a mostly empty auditorium, gave her normal stump speech, evoking the parallel political worlds Republicans live in. Just watching the early lines to the exits, you can see that this is not a Republican national convention, it is the Trump national convention. Many Trump delegates don’t care about Republican rising stars. Only Trump.
Finally, Melania, the most important speaker of the night. I liked the speech. It was well-written. It was human. It was plagiarized.
The part about honesty.
To all the Trump backers who tweeted that Melania will bring class back to the White House after eight years of Michelle Obama, all I can say is … I don’t really have anything to say.
I had forgotten that Mrs. Obama said many of the same words in a similar introduction-to-the-nation speech eight years ago. In the afternoon, Mrs. Trump boasted in an interview that she had written almost all of her speech. By the end of the evening, Team Trump released a curious statement citing a “team” of speechwriters.
As the aforementioned Hubert H. Humphrey once remarked, “To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.”
Day Two. What else could go wrong?
I will be analyzing the convention on CCTV’s World Insight program at 10:15 a.m. EDT/9:15 EDT on Tuesday. Tune in for a live discussion.