Trump set the table for Clinton
— Donald Trump’s botched convention made Hillary Clinton’s task in Philadelphia easier. Not necessarily easy, but easier.
The Republicans’ four days here were marked by disorganization, division and darkness. This was the Ronco of flubbed conventions: But wait, there’s more. After the plagiarism debacle, a preventable problem made massively worse, came the Cruz fiasco, the news of his non-endorsement drowning out the vice presidential nominee.
The mood among the GOP political establishment here traced a downhill trajectory from sour to disgusted. To talk to elected officials and political professionals was to encounter shrugged shoulders and shaking heads. No one could remember a convention this thoroughly, unnecessarily bungled.
Trump could have used the convention, and his speech, to reassure doubting voters he possesses the judgment and temperament to be president, to expand beyond the base clamoring for Hillary Clinton’s head.
Trump and his children clearly have it in them. Ivanka Trump unsettled the convention audience with her unapologetic assertion that she is no reflexive Republican (“Like many of my fellow millennials, I do not consider myself categorically Republican or Democrat”) and previewed a general election message on affordable child care and pay equity.
Trump himself uttered the phrase “LGBTQ,” twice, to cheers — unthinkable to anyone who heard Pat Buchanan’s “take back our culture” speech at the 1992 convention.
But Trump chose, mostly, to rile up rather than reach out. Ronald Reagan spoke in 1975 of bold conservative colors, not “pale pastels.” Trump’s palette is Rembrandt dark, without the deft brushstrokes. His distorted vision is one of America under assault — by criminals, by immigrants, by terrorists — with Trump the only possible savior.
“Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored,” Trump proclaimed. And, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” The authoritarian overtones were neck-prickling.
So what is Clinton to do? Perhaps the country is in such a frenzy of disgust and despair that voters will be receptive to Trumpist fear-mongering, in which case she — and we — are in trouble. Not to discount the anger and frustration, yet Reagan succeeded by combining his muscular conservative message with a sunny, uplifting vision.
The American people want to imagine their country as shining city on the hill, not the brutalized landscape of “Blade Runner.” They want their anxiety acknowledged but their better angels channeled, away from anger and retribution.
The challenge for Trump going into his convention was an amped-up version of the usual: to unify his party and cast himself in the eyes of voters as a man they can entrust with the presidency. He fell short, on both scores.
Clinton’s test is different. There may be lingering grumpiness among Bernie Sanders voters and distrust of the triangulating Clinton duo in the party’s progressive wing. Yet nothing concentrates the Democratic mind, or unifies the base, like the prospect of Trump. The party Clinton will address in Philadelphia may not be uniformly ecstatic about her candidacy, but it is far less riven by the notion of her as president than were Republicans in Cleveland.
Similarly, for all the particulars of Chris Christie’s indictment of Clinton’s supposed foreign policy blunders, voters’ doubts do not center on her knowledge, her experience or her competence.
They concern, as always, her honesty, trustworthiness and fundamental issues of character, not a problem capable of being solved by a boffo acceptance speech or a string of testimonials. If such rehabilitation were ever possible, which is remote, FBI Director James Comey dispensed with that in two damning words: “extremely careless.”
So Clinton’s path lies in emphasizing the consistency of her biography, anchored in values. Where Trump declared bankruptcies and ripped off everyone from lenders to Trump University suckers, Clinton and her validators can be expected to argue that she devoted a lifetime to fighting for women and children.
But biography means little without it being tied to a compelling picture of the future. Trump has run a campaign that is all slogan and little policy. Clinton, by contrast, has run a tapas campaign, serving up endless small plates of wonky policy. Each may be smart individually but these dishes lack an overarching theme, at least not one that she has succeeded in conveying to voters.
Trump and his convention helped her by adding to the evidence about his own unsuitability. She needs to help herself not only by hammering that home, but by offering an affirmative case for herself and a vision of where she wants to lead the country.
Ruth Marcus is a syndicated columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.