The car­ni­val in Cleve­land

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son

— 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

WASH­ING­TON

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 boor- ish 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 deny- ing 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 is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Contact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post.com.

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