Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s repeated appeals for the GOP to show it’s a proposition party, not an opposition party have clearly fallen on deaf ears among Republicans. But Democrats may be listening.
The four-day Republican National Convention was packed full of speakers attacking presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama but light on a counter agenda to the policies they decried as dangerous and destructive.
“If we measure [Republicans’] success based on arguments why Hillary Clinton should not be president, then they did that well,” said Jennifer Lawless, a government professor at American University. “Nobody laid out a clear article for why Donald Trump is qualified to be president and how he will move the country in the right direction.”
Trump himself did offer a rundown of his policy ideas — from reducing crime and illegal immigration to overhauling the tax code and replacing the Affordable Care Act — but he offered few specifics on how he’d accomplish his goals. Ultimately, he spent more time attacking Clinton and laying out his case for how America has fallen from grace than he did promoting his ideas on how to “Make America Great Again.”
Democrats say the conversation at their convention in Philadelphia this week will be different, despite unrest from the party’s more progressive members.
“I think that what we’re going to have in our convention is our party’s chance, not to talk about what we’re against,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.Y., said last week. “But I think what’s important is the country hear from our party about our vision for unifying America, for investing in America, from infrastructure to education, and creating strong alliances from around the globe that are going to keep us safer and make us stronger.”
Clinton pointed out that Trump offered “no solutions” and that Cleveland was full of opposition rhetoric.
“It was kind of perversely flattering,” she said at a rally in Tampa the day after the GOP convention ended. “It’s hard to believe they spent so much time talking about me and no time talking about jobs and education.”
“Starting on Monday in Philadelphia,” she added, “we will offer a very different vision.”
Lawless said she expects Democrats will offer more solutions than Republicans did, while also attacking Trump and his supporters for failing to offer any concrete proposals of their own.
“Democrats are in a better position because they’re going second, so they now really get to set a tone that contrasts with what Republicans did, not just what they assume the Republicans would do,” she said.
The GOP’s opposition tactics played well at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Jabs at Clinton drew cheers from the delegates.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, conducted a conducted a mock trial of Clinton from the podium on Tuesday that produced chants of “Lock Her Up, Lock Her Up.” In the nights following, every time a speaker threw a strong punch at Clinton’s record, the crowd repeated that chant.
Trump and his surrogates did a good job appealing to the base, but they failed to lay out a case for why undecided voters should support them, Lawless aid.
“Everybody in the convention hall thinks you’re going to win. … The real point of these conventions, the secondary point, is to convince the audience at home,” she said, adding, “It’s very difficult to be convincing on that front if you only do half the job.”
Even Ryan, the Republican trying to usher his party into a battle of ideas , spent half of his 13-minute speech criticizing the Democrats. The other half was more about setting goals for the party, than for laying out the policy ideas he’s been promoting as part of the House Republicans’ “A Better Way” agenda.
Ryan has said he learned from the party’s 2012 loss, when he was Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate. Their campaign did not come out early enough with a strong platform of policy proposals they would enact if elected, Ryan has said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also had lofty goals about retooling the party’s messaging following their 2012 loss, but he also spent most of his speech bashing Clinton with insults like this one: “For Hillary Clinton, the oval office is just another cash cow.”
Ironically, one of the most aspirational speeches of the convention came from Sen. Ted Cruz. He spoke of freedom and American values and talked about his ideas for making the country better until he made it clear where he was going with the speech when he said, “Vote your conscience ” and was booed off the stage for not endorsing Trump.
The speakers who best laid out the proposition case for Trump were his children.
“His children did a good job establishing his credit,” Lawless said, noting they painted him as empathetic and someone people could relate to, in addition to outlining some of his policy ideas.
Although few of the establishment Republican speakers at the convention spent much time talking about Trump at all, that may actually have been what he wanted to help solidify his case that he’s a true outsider candidate.
“Trump is stuck between a rock and a hard place because he is trying to differentiate himself from the establishment,” Lawless said.
At the Democratic National Convention, there will still be plenty of opposition to Trump, but there’s likely to be a greater balance between that and their ideas for moving the country forward, Lawless said. “I think the attacks on Trump will be far less hate filled.”
Uncertain at this point is the degree to which dissent among the Democrats’ progressive wing will disrupt that mood.
After a bruising primary season, Clinton and her leading primary opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, reached enough agreement on such issues as the trade protection, college affordability and health care that Sanders endorsed her earlier this month.
But the release of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee last week set off new protests, prompting DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to agree to step down after the convention. Even so, some Sanders supporters say they might object to the nomination of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine for the vice presidential spot.
Sanders will speak on the first night of the convention and, unlike Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz who snubbed Trump last week, Sanders is expected to embrace Clinton and Kaine. Several of Sanders’ congressional supporters are also scheduled to speak.
At her rally last week, Clinton promised a more positive atmosphere with a clear vision at this week’s convention.
“It’s about building bridges, not walls,” she said. “It’s about making the economy work for everyone, not just those at the top. It’s about embracing our diversity.”