Two weeks of the major party political conventions in US delivered 16 hours of prime-time programming, more than 120 individual speakers, dozens of pre-produced glossy videos and zero fundamental change in the race.
Both national conventions had their emotional, viral moments ― Brayden Harrington’s speech about his stutter at the Democratic National Convention, widow Ann Dorn’s tribute to her retired police officer husband at the GOP celebration ― but neither had any type of game-changing moment to alter the fundamental story of the race: It is a referendum on US President Donald Trump, with many voters disapproving of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, health care and racial justice. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has a steady but not overwhelming lead in polls of the most crucial swing states.
Trump’s speech Thursday nicely illustrates the convention’s lack of impact. Trump rattled off a long, meandering list of already well-known or politically irrelevant accomplishments and repeated well-worn attacks on Biden. The speech came without any of the gusto that defines his most off-the-rails rally performances but with all of the lies and distortions he typically delivers.
The speech jumped around from attack to attack ― hitting Biden for being weak on China, then for becoming allied with progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), then back to being weak on China, then to his support for late-term abortion, then back to Biden being a “Trojan horse for socialists” ― without sticking to any one cohesive theme.
“No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” Trump said in the closest thing the 70-minute speech had to a summary.
In general, it was an attempt to shift the race from a referendum on Trump’s performance ― a referendum Trump is very likely to fail ― toward a choice between himself and Biden. Trump mentioned Biden’s name more than 40 times in his speech Thursday night. Biden never directly mentioned Trump during his speech the week before.
But there was little in the speech that the Trump campaign had not tried before without success.
There are plenty of other reasons the speech’s effect will be limited: The inappropriate use of the White House and lack of social distancing among the Rose Garden crowd will overshadow the speech’s content, and two bigger news stories ― the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast ― may overshadow its existence entirely.
In general, the political effect of conventions has been declining for years as partisanship and polarization has risen, and the Democratic convention provided little boost for Biden’s campaign. Expect the polls, and the voters they survey, to give Trump the same treatment.
At this point, with Biden holding a stable lead and fewer than 70 days until Election Day, Biden wins by not losing.
Here are three more takeaways from the Republican National Convention:
Trump Lied A Lot
Trump’s address was also peppered with lies, misstatements and distortions about both his record and Biden’s positions, many of which were repeated at other points during the convention. Going over every last lie would require a Herculean effort, but two of them were critical, and Trump is likely to repeat them again and again over the final weeks of the race.
The first is his claim that the “entire Republican Party” would “always, and very strongly, protect patients with preexisting conditions.” This simply isn’t true. The GOP has dedicated dozens of congressional votes over the years to repealing Obamacare, including its protections blocking insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting health conditions. Trump’s Justice Department supports a lawsuit aiming to strike down the entire law that is soon to go before the Supreme Court. Various Republicans have tried to introduce legislation that could replace Obamacare’s protections, but health care experts have consistently said those bills would fall short of the protections the Affordable Care Act offers.
The second major lie was that Biden supports efforts to eliminate police budgets, part of Trump’s efforts to portray Biden ― a veteran politician with a clear center-left ideology and track record ― as a stalking-horse for the left-most elements of the Democratic Party. “If you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will defund police departments all across America,” Trump said.
Biden does not support defunding the police. Biden has actually proposed increased federal funding for police departments to hire additional officers, while Trump has proposed cutting federal funds for local departments in each of the budgets of his presidency.
Trump Is Stuck In 1980s New York City
One of the most striking things about the final night of the Republican National Convention was the degree to which speakers singled out New York City as an embodiment of the failures of urban Democratic rule.
A short film of racially diverse residents of New York City’s public housing system denounced the incompetence of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio. One speaker even denounced Democrats for putting “illegal immigrants before Black Americans.”
Patrick Lynch, the head of New York City’s largest police union, depicted the city under de Blasio as a lawless hellhole that would not be out of place in a Batman film.
And former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ― long hailed by conservative Gothamites for his heavy-handed approach to reducing crime in the 1990s ― described de Blasio as a taste of the kind of lawlessness-for-its-own-sake that Democrats supposedly want to visit on America.
Don’t let Democrats do to America what they’ve done to New York.Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor
“Don’t let Democrats do to America what they’ve done to New York,” Giuliani said, declaring that Republicans were the true anti-racists for their vigilance against the ordinary crime that kills so many Black residents of major cities. “For President Trump and for us Republicans, all Black lives matter.”
It’s not hard to see why Republicans would try to cast themselves as guardians against rising crime in some cities ― to say nothing of the rioting that has spilled out from peaceful demonstrations against police misconduct, particularly in cities like Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. That’s because it allows the GOP to shift from the politically inconvenient terrain of dismissing protests against police misconduct and racism, which a majority of Americans support, and turn to the stronger ground of condemning arson and property destruction, which already appear to be turning swing voters against Democrats in the general election battleground state of Wisconsin.
As HuffPost has noted, though, it’s a whole lot harder for Trump to paint himself as the solution to crime and civil unrest-fueled-rioting when those problems have exploded on his watch. He ran in 2016 on a similar platform; now he is asking for a chance to deliver on a promise he couldn’t keep.
In addition, the focus on New York City was bizarre. Notwithstanding an uptick in crime, including shootings and murders in recent months, New York City does not even break the top 25 most crime-ridden big cities. And though the city is in the grips of an uptick in crime that is cause for local concern, the Big Apple is on track to have far fewer violent crimes this year than it did under Giuliani.
Trump is once again trapped in the unique New York City culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, when he first tried his hand at right-wing demagoguery. In 1989, Trump took out a full-page ad in New York City newspapers calling for the state to revive the death penalty to punish the “Central Park Five” ― a group of Black and Latino teenagers accused of raping a woman in Manhattan. When the young men were exonerated by DNA evidence decades later, Trump declined to apologize for whipping up public sentiment against them.
Trump Sees China As Joe Biden’s Weak Point
While some GOP convention speakers stirred fear over crime and rioting, others, such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Trump himself, framed a win for Biden as tantamount to selling the country out to China.
“Joe Biden aided and abetted China’s rise for 50 years with terrible trade deals that closed our factories and laid off our workers,” Cotton said.
It is indeed true that Biden voted to approve permanent normalized trade relations with China in 2000. Experts estimate that from 1999 to 2011, the U.S. lost between 2 million and 2.4 million manufacturing jobs due to increased competition with China. As a candidate, Sanders also slammed Biden for his vote to open up U.S.-China trade.
But Biden now supports tougher enforcement and public investments as part of a “Buy American” program that he says would generate 5 million new manufacturing jobs. And the United States’ trade deficit with China ― accompanied by the flight of manufacturing jobs ― has continued to climb during Trump’s presidency.
Shortly after Cotton’s speech on Thursday, the Biden campaign sent out an email blast to reporters with the subject line: “Donald Trump Is the Weakest President in U.S. History When It Comes to China – and Chinese Officials Are Pulling for His Re-election.” The attack memo highlights, among other things, Trump’s initial reluctance to criticize China’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak, his calls for the Chinese government to investigate the Bidens to benefit him politically and Trump’s inaccurate claim that he banned travel to the U.S. from China in order to contain COVID-19.