What have we learned, so far, about the Republican National Convention?
Like the man’s many properties, Donald Trump’s name ought to be on this Cleveland production. For Monday night was vintage Trump: physical confrontation (a failed rules rebellion on the convention floor); rhetoric that was blunt, bordering on impolite and offensive.
Plus, like too many a Trump event, an unforced error the campaign can’t quite explain or justify: in this case, why portions of Melania Trump’s speech seemingly were cut-and-pasted from a Michelle Obama speech at 2008’s Democratic National Convention.
Here are four observations from last night:
Melania Trump deserved to be cut a lot a slack: she’s not used to high-profile speeches; English isn’t her first language; expectations were at times nonsensical...
Spousal Support. Let’s start with the night’s biggest controversy.
Remarks from the woman who hopes to be America’s next first lady are an opening-night tradition. Ann Romney did it in 2012, as did Michelle Obama in 2008.
And, in fairness, Melania Trump deserved to be cut a lot a slack: she’s not used to high-profile speeches; English isn’t her first language; expectations were at times nonsensical – at least one television pundit expected her talk to about her love for The Donald, what kind of man he is, and how they raise their 10-year-old-son.
In all of five minutes.
Melania spoke much longer – 14 very polished minutes, in fact – focusing on her husband’s drive and determination and their shared passion for America.
There were no cute anecdotes about how they met (get ready to hear it one last time in Philadelphia) or hokey yarns about her husband’s around-the-house idiosyncrasies.
Anyone who thinks Mrs. Trump should have done more: feel free to try it yourself, in an adopted language, with 20,000 sets of eyes staring back at you.
However, there’s no excuse for plagiarism – regardless of who did it (Mrs. Trump said she wrote the speech, with help from aides).
It’s the kind of needless mistake that makes Trump-wary Republicans wary of this campaign’s chances. The convention can’t afford to lead with this kind of news three more nights.
Security Blanket. Back in 2004, a GOP conventionin New York City, dovetailing with George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, had a singular focus: national security. Bush being a wartime president and Manhattan one of the 9/11 targets, it made perfect sense.
Monday’s overarching theme for the Cleveland show: “make American safe again” (every night’s a variation of Donald Trump’s “make America great again” brand).
It featured a host of speakers who tore into Hillary Clinton and her party as soft on terrorism and responsible for America losing face on the world stage.
Twelve years ago, the Bush campaign entrusted the likes of Giuliani, John McCain and Michael Bloomberg to make the GOP’s case.
In 2016, and this being Trump’s show, the honors went not so much to politicians as to emissaries from the victim class: Pat Smith, mother of Sean Smith, killed in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya; Kent Terry and Kelly Terry-Willis, siblings of Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent whose shooting death revealed the "Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling operation; Karen Vaughn, mother of a U.S. Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan.
Benghazi and “Fast and Furious” are topics that inflame the right – in part, because the mainstream media have moved on. Does reliving both episodes move the needle for Trump? Wait for the poll-convention polls. But at a minimum, it was refreshing to see non-politicians speak from personal experience.
Not coincidentally, the Clinton campaign recently put out this “Dictators” ad mocking Trump’s foreign policy chops – after this Trump ad featuring a barking Clinton and a laughing Vladimir Putin. Let’s see if she continues that theme next week in Philadelphia – and how her convention surrogates react now that the attacks have become very personal.
The Past Is Not Prolonged. Monday’s are a convenient moment to trot out party legends – former presidents, legendary statesmen.
That wasn’t so, in Cleveland, on Day One.
Time and again, the spotlight went to congressional newbies – Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke – with links to Iraq and Afghanistan but not previous conflicts.
Not to disparage their service, but this is the pity of Trump’s relationship with the Republican Establishment. Bob Dole, the only former GOP nominee in attendance, did get a nice acknowledgement from Melania Trump. But Dole and George H.W. Bush, a pair of World War II veterans who may not live to see the 2020 convention, deserved better. At the least, one last filmed tribute for “the Greatest Generation.” Hopefully, Trump gives the two elders a nod on Thursday.
Consider what an odd pair of conventions we have this year. In Philadelphia, Hillary will juggle 1990’s nostalgia with a hard sell that she’s fresh off the shelf. In Cleveland, it’s as if history hit the pause button from the end of the Reagan presidency to the dawn of the Trump candidacy.
Reality Check. For weeks, we’ve heard about a different look and feel in Cleveland – Trump changing the Republican convention from political theater to reality television.
There were threads of reality throughout the first night – moments both staged and unvarnished. The graphic details of the Benghazi talk were unsettling. Giuliani was more over-the-top – more a Hillary-hating reality villain than an inspiring mayor. Audience chants of “lock her up” sounded more Jerry Springer than Jerry Ford.
And the ultimate reality moment: Trump, of course.
His silhouetted entrance was Alfred Hitchcock meets Freddie Mercury meets "The Apprentice." Ever the gracious reality host, he spoke for only 30 seconds in introducing his wife (oddly, this wasn’t the night’s closing act).
Trump fans will rave about the showmanship; his critics will offer scathing reviews about the night’s dark and bitter tones.
And somewhere beyond Cleveland: three more days for Americans to better decide if this show gets a four-year run in Washington.
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.