WASHINGTON – The Republican National Convention wasn’t a complete disaster, but only because Mike Pence showed signs of being a more able running mate than many thought. Other than that? Hot mess, dumpster fire, train wreck – pick your overused metaphor. It was huge, but not in a good way.
Political conventions are supposed to stoke and showcase party unity behind a presidential nominee whose virtues are unalloyed. But the GOP has no such unity and no such nominee. In Cleveland, Donald Trump was like a corporate raider who engineered a hostile takeover – and then, at his first board meeting, put his feet up on the table and couldn’t remember anybody’s name.
Party loyalists and Trump family retainers will try to spin Cleveland as some sort of triumph. But seriously, when has it ever been beneficial for a candidate to be upstaged at his convention by his chief rival? It didn’t help Gerald Ford that Ronald Reagan stole the show in 1976, or Jimmy Carter that Ted Kennedy captured delegates’ hearts in 1980.
It is true that Ted Cruz, unlike those earlier usurpers, was booed off the stage Wednesday night when he refused to endorse Trump. But Nelson Rockefeller was booed, too, in 1964 – and that year’s conquering outsider, Barry Goldwater, went down to crushing defeat.
Why were convention delegates so angry at Cruz? Because the truth hurts.
Republicans have nominated for president a boorish bully who does not share their conservative philosophy – who appears, in fact, to have no fixed philosophy at all. Cruz said Thursday that he refused to behave like a “servile puppy dog” toward someone like Trump. He implied that many in the convention hall were obediently sitting up and rolling over for a very bad man.
Trump relentlessly touts his managerial skill, but this week he showed that he can’t even run a decent-sized meeting. Amateur hour began Monday, on opening night, when Trump’s wife Melania delivered a well-reviewed speech – parts of which, it turned out, were plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s address to the 2008 Democratic convention.
What followed was a case study in political malpractice. Trump campaign aides and Republican spokespeople spent all day Tuesday denying the obvious word-theft, violating the first rule of damage control: Apologize quickly and move on. It wasn’t until Wednesday that an in-house Trump Organization employee fell on her sword and took responsibility.
It also wasn’t until Wednesday that delegates and television viewers heard a lineup of speakers spend meaningful time saying nice things about Trump. For the first two days, aside from Melania Trump’s speech, the focus was almost exclusively on painting Hillary Clinton as pure evil. I mean that literally: Ben Carson, going way off script, tried to associate the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state with Lucifer.
The repeated chants of “Lock her up!” were those of a political lynch mob, not a serious political gathering. But antipathy toward Clinton is really the only common ground that GOP regulars share with the party’s nominee. Cruz’s defiance made it impossible to paper over the fact that Trump, on a whole range of issues, simply does not agree with Republican orthodoxy.
The one positive development for the party, I thought, was Pence’s debut on the national stage. He was smooth and reassuring, all rounded edges as opposed to Trump’s spikes. I’m not sure how much he'll help the ticket on the trail and the debate stage, but I don’t think he'll hurt it.
Bottom line, the GOP served up a hanging curveball for Democrats to smash into the upper deck, if they manage not to whiff.
Requirements for a successful convention next week in Philadelphia are modest. First, the Democrats need to display real party unity rather than the simulated kind; voters will be able to tell the difference. To that end, the speech by Bernie Sanders on Monday night will be tremendously important. If he goes all in for Clinton – and shows some enthusiasm about it – the Democratic Party’s built-in demographic and Electoral College advantages will be able to kick in.
Beyond that, the convention needs to portray Clinton as a human being, rather than the grotesque caricature painted by Republicans; draw a contrast between her vast experience and Trump’s dangerous ignorance; demonstrate that she was enlightened, rather than annoyed, by the issues Sanders raised; and paint a positive vision of the nation’s future.
It is not, frankly, that high a bar. If Democrats can’t make Philadelphia better than Cleveland, they don’t deserve to win.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.