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Adapting To A Pandemic, GOP Confab Sets Tone For Trump Reelection Campaign

President Trump speaks from the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday night, the last day of the Republican National Convention.
Evan Vucci
President Trump speaks from the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday night, the last day of the Republican National Convention.

The 2020 Republican National Convention this week began and ended with two performances by the man who designed it all, President Donald J. Trump.

Most of the attention went, of course, to the final night's event, when a live audience saw him "profoundly accept" his renomination in an hourlong speech delivered on the South Lawn of the White House. Backed by a forest of American flags, the president looked out upon members of his family and staff, members of his Cabinet and members of his party in Congress.

They sat side by side in close rows of chairs. Few wore masks. There was little sign of the pandemic that had cost the president the big show he had originally planned for Charlotte, N.C., or in his backup venue in Jacksonville, Fla.

Unlike most of the speakers during the week, Trump did not ignore the disease that has killed 180,000 Americans or speak of it in the past tense. But he cast it as less than central to the moment, a kind of speed bump for his parade of triumphs: "We are meeting this challenge," he said proudly, "delivering lifesaving therapies and we will produce a vaccine before the end of the year or maybe even sooner."

Few experts have seen a realistic possibility of a vaccine that would be regarded as safe by year's end, let alone sooner. In recent weeks, the White House has barred TV appearances by such figures as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's longtime leading immunologist, who has contradicted the president without criticizing him.

Trump displayed a portrait of three presidencies – his own, his predecessor's and the one he said Democratic nominee Joe Biden would create if elected. Most of the attention focused on Trump's own four years, which he sketched as a montage of success upon success. He spoke of having conquered the vexing issues of taxes and trade, European allies and Middle East rivals, refugees and immigrants and most notably – the pandemic itself.

Uplifting or unloading?

The White House had promised a speech that would be "uplifting," unbowed by the virus, the consequent recession or the widespread racial unrest following multiple killings of Black people by police. The speech was defiant, to be sure, but the inspirational elements were less salient than Trump's relentless attack on his Democratic foe.

"Joe Biden is not a savior of America's soul," the president said. "He is the destroyer of America's jobs, and if given the chance, he will be the destroyer of America's greatness."

Overall, the speech sounded a great deal like an earlier acceptance speech by an angry outsider running for president four years ago at the Republican convention in Cleveland. That night, candidate Trump railed against the work of Democrats and Washington insiders, whom he would displace.

"Only I can fix it," he said then. And four years later, the message was much the same, although he had been working for most of that time inside the building that served as the backdrop for his speech on Thursday.

(Throughout the week, government watchdogs and other critics of the administration noted the wanton disregard being shown for previous norms and regulations regarding the use of government officials or taxpayer property to promote a campaign for office. The Hatch Act, an 81-year-old law, prohibits such uses but has not been used to send anyone to jail. When asked about this during the week, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said: "No one outside of the Beltway really cares.")

Trump's case for himself may have been even sharper on Monday, when he made an unscheduled appearance in Charlotte. Here, instead of the 50,000 attendees originally anticipated, a remnant of 336 delegates had done the official business of renominating the incumbent. The unopposed incumbent had won every state, and in fact every vote from every state. Many states had canceled their primaries or caucuses on the Republican side.

As he followed Vice President Pence onstage in Charlotte, Trump was greeted with chants of "four more years." He replied: "If you want to really drive them crazy you say: 'Twelve more years.' "

The president did not explain how a four-term presidency might happen, given the constitutional limit of two terms set by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution halfway through the 20th century.

But the president did offer an hour's worth of free-form, wide-ranging ruminations on everything from the state of the national economy to trade deals with China and South Korea and the kinds of people most likely to die from COVID-19. ("It affects older people, the elderly, people with problems, with heart, diabetes, other problems.") By Friday, two attendees at the Charlotte event and two support staff had tested positive for the virus.

But in that hour in Charlotte, the president was loose and very much among friends. His language veered beyond informal to crude at times, but no one in the hall seemed to mind. The shouts of "we love you" and "thank you, Mr. President" were recurrent, persistent and well-amplified to be clearly audible on TV.

Monday's midday walk-on was not widely seen, but clips were great fodder for cable TV. And the prime-time TV audience began tuning in that same night, when Trump was not featured but did make a cameo appearance. The same happened on the second and third nights, posing the president for pictures with Melania, his wife, or Pence, his vice president, just as the TV anchors were signing off.

A creature unto itself

This Republican gathering was sui generis, a creature unto itself, unlike any preceding convention any major party held since such gatherings began in the 1830s. The Democrats the week before had met almost entirely online, but the Republicans managed to perform before live audiences that were small but vocal and highly enthusiastic.

The overnight reviews split along partisan lines as sharply, and predictably, as the votes on impeachment in Congress last winter. It is hard to remember now that President Trump is the only president ever to face the voters after being impeached (or forced from office under threat of impeachment).

But if that was any inhibition for him, it did not show. It was not in his prepared remarks, but he again asserted in his concluding speech that "Obama and Biden spied on me and got caught" – an allusion to his explanation for the investigation of his ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election. Multiple investigations have yet to find evidence to prove this accusation.

Trump did not mention his actual impeachment, but several other speakers from his retinue did during the week. It was noted that the Democrats, who impeached Trump in the House and pressed for his removal from office in the Senate, did not mention impeachment in their prime-time speeches the previous week.

But sadly for the president, impeachment was only the first dire challenge to face in his reelection year. And it has proven more difficult to elide the facts and consequences of the others.

Despite the president's assertions, the crisis over the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, with more than 180,000 dead and still nearly a thousand dying each day. The U.S. also adds thousands of new infections each day (leading the world with 5.9 million as of Saturday), while the administration responds by trying to limit the number of people getting tested and promoting various therapies that have not been shown to be helpful.

The president has repeatedly blamed the testing for the high numbers of new cases. He and others in his orbit have suggested only people showing symptoms of the disease should be tested at all. Still, flashing the bravado that characterized his business career, Trump has insisted his handling of the virus has been not only defensible but exemplary.

Recession the larger threat?

What has seemed to concern the president more is the dislocation the pandemic has caused in the economy, which crashed in March. The gross domestic product for the second quarter fell by nearly a third (on an annualized basis), and unemployment soared to nearly 15%. Both measures were the worst since the Great Depression. Aggrieved by the shutdown of schools and workplaces, Trump began saying, "The cure cannot be worse than the disease."

Today, Trump can point to some bright spots. The stock market has rebounded to regain its previous highs. Partial reopening of many businesses has allowed many laid-off workers to return to work. But the positive jobs trend at mid-summer has since reversed itself, and a million or more people are again filing for unemployment compensation each week.

At the scaled-down RNC this week, all talk of the economy was spun to highlight the happier times of last winter and look forward to a snapback next winter. As he usually does, Trump took credit for the "strongest economy in history" and a record number of people with jobs. But both claims, while often repeated, are shaky. As was noted the previous week by the Democrats, there were more jobs created in the U.S. in the last three years under Obama than in the first three under Trump. More than a million more.

But whatever the validity of of Trump's claims about the past, current reality for millions of the unemployed is dire. With the virus still far from controlled, the economic climb could get steeper as well.

Given all the strange and strained circumstances, no one can be surprised that this convention seemed so different from all its historic analogs. But the starkest contrast was with those past conventions staged by incumbent presidents seeing a second term — especially those in the era of TV coverage.

Looking just at GOP conventions renominating incumbents, the record is impressive. Four of the five incumbents in this era went on to win a second term (George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower). The latter three won reelection in landslides: Ike carried 41 of 48 states, Nixon and Reagan each carried 49 of 50.

Those campaigns featured supremely confident conventions with little or no controversy touching the candidate (other than health concerns following Eisenhower's 1955 heart attack).

George W. Bush was renominated in 2004 in New York City to celebrate that city's comeback from the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001. The stars of that show were the city's former mayor Rudy Giuliani (also on the program Thursday night, although with far less starpower impact) and the movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, then a newly elected governor of California, who has since disappeared from Republican politics.

The one renominating GOP convention in these five that presaged a losing November was the 1992 event on behalf of President George H.W. Bush in his hometown of Houston. And a review of that episode turns up some similarities in rhetoric to what we heard this week. Rich Bond, the party's national chairman, told the convention hall "We are America, they [the Democrats] are not America." This week, Pence told the crowd at Fort McHenry that "America is on the ballot."

It has often been said that the elder Bush's show fell flat for two reasons. First, it failed to address the big negative story hanging over the country – lagging recovery from a recession that had lingered in some swing states. But the other problem for the incumbent nominee was one Trump did not have: speakers whose performance overshadowed the nominee's own. One was Reagan, then just four years out of office and still immensely popular. In the last major address of his career, Reagan reminded the audience he had chosen Bush as his vice president; but many in the audience were reminded how much they preferred Reagan.

A speech sets campaign tone

A larger problem was the indelible opening night speech by Patrick Buchanan, a former journalist and speechwriter both for Reagan and the previous Republican president Richard Nixon. Buchanan had run against Bush, his party's incumbent president, in the GOP primaries that year. While he had just 18 delegates, the Bush team wanted his help with the party's more populist, nationalist wing. (Buchanan would later run for president as a third-party candidate on the campaign slogan "America First.")

Buchanan's outsider campaign had been about reducing immigration and resisting social changes such as abortion rights, gay rights, women in combat units and multicultural education. In Houston, he said these were "not the kind of change America wants and not the kind of change we can abide in a nation we still call God's country." He spoke of "a cultural war" in America and said that summer's Democratic Convention had featured "20,000 radicals and liberals dressed up as moderates and centrists."

Buchanan closed by paying tribute to National Guard troops sent to Los Angeles that summer to quell street riots after a jury acquitted police officers videotaped beating Rodney King, a black man. Buchanan said the soldiers, with bayonets fixed, were "taking back America, block by block."

The speech lit up the Astrodome, unleashing a roar from the crowd that seemed to reverberate throughout the week and beyond. It would be widely criticized as incendiary and contradictory of Bush's "kinder, gentler" conservatism. But it overshadowed the incumbent president's own speech at week's end, which lacked the force of his first acceptance speech four years earlier.

All conventions have their memorable moments, positive or otherwise, and their connection to either victory or defeat will always be subject to debate. This year's versions, one online and one largely a hybrid, were both scaled way back from historic expectations. Their actual effect on the campaign's outcome may be similarly reduced, perhaps even marginal.

In 2024, we may be eager to hold traditional conventions again, or we may have come to regard them as an anachronism. Much may depend on who is in the White House at that time and on how much of a contribution that person believes the 2020 convention made to the November outcome.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.