On the menu today: The Republicans go out and make the only case for Trump that they can, the Democrats start to worry that the violence in Kenosha could be a tipping point, and wondering whether Biden’s big lead in the national numbers is being driven by the blue states getting even bluer.
Somewhere in There, He Had a Fine Half-Hour Speech
No doubt there are people out there who loved all 70 minutes of President Trump’s convention address. Perhaps the length was meant to demonstrate the president’s stamina, and contrast with Joe Biden’s relatively short 24-minute speech a week ago.
But you don’t see many great 70-minute speeches, and the plodding, only intermittently invigorated delivery pushed off what has to rank as one of the most spectacular endings to a convention in American history. I don’t know if any political party will ever go back to indoor conventions and balloon drops again. The massive fireworks display, including spelling out “TRUMP 2020” over the White House, was so visually stunning that even the protesters stopped and watched. Why wouldn’t you want that in primetime?
But if Trump loses in November, it won’t be because his acceptance speech was long and meandering. It’s a missed opportunity, but not really a loss, and the long speech will be sliced into short snippets for local news coverage and social media anyway.
I’d argue that up until 10 p.m. Eastern, the Republicans had enjoyed about as good a convention as they could possibly have in the current circumstances. They had a message: Forget what he says, focus on what he does. There are a lot of lower-profile reforms on the domestic-policy arena that really matter to people, such as the First Step Act and the Right to Try Act. The majority of Americans like booming energy production, upgraded border fences, expanding school choice and access to charter schools, and some tax cuts putting some more money in their pockets every pay period. Consider that Americans don’t spend much time thinking about or worrying about ISIS anymore. Up until the coronavirus hit, Donald Trump looked set to ride a booming economy to a second term. Getting people to forget that Donald Trump can be erratic, angry, mean, and narcissistic is a tough task, but four years ago, enough voters in enough places put aside their lingering doubts to elect him to the Oval Office. The “focus on the policies you want, not the man enacting them,” message has worked before, and it can work again. (Which is distinct from saying it will work again.)
Last night Michael Brendan Douherty saw another theme:
In 2016, Trump campaigned on the threats to America from without. China was ripping us off. Mexico wasn’t sending their best. The bumbling political class allowed ISIS to take over part of Iraq and couldn’t stop them. It fit a mood on the American right at the time. 2015 was a year punctuated by spectacular terrorist attacks in Europe, some of them directly associated with the chaotic refugee flows into Europe. Events like the San Bernardino shooting made it feel like America was next.
But in 2020, the message is that the threat to America comes from within. Phrased in a slightly gentle way, it’s the threat of Americans no longer believing in themselves, or their country. Trump opened his speech promising that his party would be welcoming anyone who believes in “the greatness of America and the righteous heart of the American people.”
In some ways, this is what a lot of Republicans — and perhaps quite a few independents as well — have wanted to see and hear for a long time. They believe, with good reason, that the Democratic Party has lost the ability to distinguish between discussing America’s flaws and seeing America as irredeemably flawed. Even if Democratic officials love their country, there are American citizens out there who loathe this place and everyone in it. We see it in the angry mob harassing diners in Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C. We see in the hundreds of young people who looted the stores along Michigan Avenue in Chicago . . . twice this year. We see it in Minneapolis in the people who heard a false rumor of a police shooting — a suspect committed suicide, and to calm the tensions, police had to release the video — and who immediately began breaking windows and stealing things from stores. And we see it in the crowds shoving the cops as they escorted Rand Paul and other guests who attended the ceremony at the White House last night. They don’t see anything to value or cherish or protect. They don’t see any reason to care about the people being harmed by their actions.
Some Democrats are getting nervous, and they have good reason to be nervous. In The Atlantic, George Packer is desperately trying to warn the Biden campaign:
Here is a prediction about the November election: If Donald Trump wins, in a trustworthy vote, what’s happening this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, will be one reason. Maybe the reason. And yet Joe Biden has it in his power to spare the country a second Trump term . . .
On Monday, the day after Blake’s shooting, Biden and his vice-presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris,released statements expressing outrage. The next day, Biden’s spokesperson released a statement opposing “burning down communities and needless destruction.” And on Wednesday, Biden, after speaking with the Blake family, condemned both the initial incident and the subsequent destruction. “Burning down communities is not protest,” he pleaded in a video. “It’s needless violence.” He said the same after George Floyd’s killing.
How many Americans have heard him? In the crude terms of a presidential campaign, voters know that the Democrat means it when he denounces police brutality, but less so when he denounces riots. To reach the public and convince it otherwise, Biden has to go beyond boilerplate and make it personal, memorable.
Harris, a Black former prosecutor and now an advocate for police reform, seems uniquely positioned to speak to the crisis. But she has said little all week, which suggests that there might be things she doesn’t want to say. On Thursday, Harris directly addressed the events in Kenosha, affirming that Americans “must always defend peaceful protest and peaceful protesters. We should not confuse them with those looting and committing acts of violence.”
She quickly moved on. Democratic leaders, from the nearly invisible mayor of Kenosha up to those on the presidential ticket, are reluctant to tarnish a just cause, amplify Republican attacks, or draw the wrath of their own progressive base (Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut deleted a tweet saying that both the Blake shooting and the riots were wrong after commenters accused him of equating the two). So Democrats continue to mute their response to the violence and hope it will subside, even though it has persisted straight through the summer.
Packer also concedes what conservatives have been insisting for months: that violent crime is surging in a lot of American cities, and most of the mainstream media have downplayed it or ignored it.
As I asked yesterday, if the violence and the protests are distinct, why would anyone object to denouncing the violence? And if the violence and the protests are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable, are the protests really so noble and self-evidently righteous? Maybe some people object to the police because they have been unjustly treated. But maybe some of these protesters hate the police because the police have arrested them with good cause in the past.
Packer urges, “on the burned-out streets, without a script, from the heart, Biden should speak to the city and the country. He should speak for justice and for safety, for reform and against riots, for the crying need to bring the country together.” That would indeed be great to see, but do you think Biden will do that? Does his campaign feel like it has any appetite for risk? Biden’s ahead in the polls. The people around the former vice president are probably telling him to play it safe. Maybe what’s going on in Kenosha and across the country won’t change the dynamics of the race enough to cost Biden his lead. Campaigns that are leading the polls tend to develop their own inertia.
After looking back at the late swing-state polling of 2016, I find it easy to believe Trump could head into Election Day trailing in a swing state by three points in the most recent polling and eke out a win. Maybe the phenomenon of “shy Trump voters” has expanded in the past four years, and maybe a four- or five-point lead is surmountable. Most of the latest swing-state polls have Biden’s lead outside of that window . . . but not by a ton. Franklin and Marshall has Biden up by seven points in Pennsylvania. CNBC/Change Research has Biden up by five in Wisconsin, up by six in Michigan, up by one in North Carolina, up by three in Florida. Trafalgar actually has Trump ahead by one in Wisconsin. Morning Consult has Biden up three in North Carolina. TargetSmart has Biden ahead by one in Ohio. You would rather be in Biden’s spot than Trump’s, but those massive Biden leads in the national numbers don’t mean he has all these key states locked up yet.
I notice that in 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in my home state of Virginia, 49.7 percent to 44.4 percent, a margin of 5.3 percentage points. This year, polls but Biden ahead of Trump in Virginia by 14 points, eleven points, and twelve points. A bit further north, up in New York, Clinton won, 59 percent to 36.5 percent — a margin of 23 percentage points. This year, polls put Biden ahead of Trump in New York by 31 points, 25 points, 25 points, 23 points, and 36 points.
If one trend from 2016 to now is that the blue states have turned even bluer, that phenomenon doesn’t help Biden in any way that really matters. Whether your margin of victory in a state is one or a million ballots, you get the same number of votes in the electoral college. And it would create a phenomenon that would match what we’re seeing now — national numbers that show a landslide, while the swing states don’t look quite so secure for the Democratic nominee.
ADDENDUM: Ugh. Let’s not do back-to-back convention weeks anymore, okay? I think even political junkies feel like they’ve overdosed over the past two weeks.