Trump Pitches Second Term With Selective Retelling of His First
(Bloomberg) -- For one night on the South Lawn of the White House, President Donald Trump painted a vision of the campaign he wished he were waging -- where the pandemic was an afterthought, his first term was an unqualified success and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden was little more than a “Trojan horse for socialism.”
“Joe Biden is not the savior of America’s soul. He is the destroyer of America’s jobs, and if given the chance, he will be the destroyer of America’s greatness,” Trump said Thursday night in attempting to define his opponent, a former two-term vice president with a history of moderate stances who is viewed more favorably by voters than Trump himself.
But the pivotal question for the president, in desperate need of reversing his fortunes before Election Day -- was whether this uncharacteristically low-energy address, strewn with misstatements and exaggerations about Biden’s record and his own, would be enough to change minds.
Despite delivering the second-longest presidential acceptance speech, at 71 minutes, Trump largely sidestepped the chief concern for many Americans -- how he planned to finish the fight against a deadly virus that has left more than 180,000 Americans dead. He promised a vaccine before the end of the year -- “maybe even sooner!” Trump said -- a boast none of the medical professionals around him is prepared to guarantee.
The televised images of the gathering reinforced Trump’s wishful words about putting the virus behind him. Trump spoke to about 1,500 supporters seated nearly shoulder-to-shoulder outside the White House, almost none wearing masks, on the fourth and final night of the Republican National Convention.
The president appeared eager to make his acceptance speech and the rest of the campaign a referendum on Biden, who leads in national and in key swing state polls. Few political professionals inside the Republican Party or out see this race as anything other than a referendum on one man, Trump.
That’s usually the case in a presidential re-election bid, but it’s all the more so for Trump because of how he sharply polarizes the electorate, between Republicans who adore him and Democrats who plainly can’t stand him.
Still, Trump sought to shift the focus, mentioning Biden by name 41 times -- compared to zero mentions of Trump by name in Biden’s speech one week earlier. Trump seemed far more passionate on the attack than he did reading a laundry list of first-term accomplishments or detailing his goals for another four years.
The heart of his speech echoed and amplified a thread running through all four days of the Republican convention -- that Biden was a puppet of leftist activists, and that his presidency would sweep racial unrest into White rural and suburban communities.
A Highly Partisan Appeal
“Make no mistake, if you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will defund police departments all across America,” Trump said. “They will pass federal legislation to reduce law enforcement nationwide. They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon. No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”
The president’s remarks dispensed with the type of conciliatory, unifying language typical of other politicians in favor of a full-throated endorsement of law enforcement and condemnation of demonstrators. He also mixed in a derisive characterization of Biden as “weak” and representative of “liberal hypocrites who drive their cities into the ground while fleeing far from the scene of the wreckage.”
“If the left gains power, they will demolish the suburbs, confiscate your guns, and appoint justices who will wipe away your Second Amendment and other constitutional freedoms,” Trump said.
Trump’s attacks came while making only a glancing reference to protests this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after a police officer repeatedly shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back -- the latest in a series of high-profile episodes that have stoked demonstrations by activists who argue there is systemic racism in policing. Trump merely lumped Kenosha in with cities like Chicago and New York, where social justice protests have turned violent, underscoring -- as Vice President Mike Pence did the previous night -- his administration’s unwavering support of police.
Will It Work?
There is reason to believe Trump’s relentless “law and order” focus could work: a Pew Research Center poll released earlier this month found that voters believed Republicans could do a better job dealing with law enforcement and criminal justice than Democrats, by a 46% to 42% margin. And Republicans believe that the issue could prove particularly salient in crucial battlegrounds like Minnesota and Wisconsin, which have experienced police violence and subsequent riots firsthand.
A Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin conducted before Blake’s shooting showed that support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the resulting protests was significantly eroding. While 59% of Wisconsonites said they had a favorable view of Black Lives Matter in June, that number dropped to 49% in August. And while 61% of those surveyed said they approved of the mass protests following Floyd’s death in June, that number fell to just 48% in August.
The newfound opposition to the protests was driven almost exclusively by White voters -- the core of the president’s base -- who went from supporting protests by a 22-point margin in June to opposing them by a 5-point margin in August.
There’s also evidence that concerns over crime resonates more among Trump’s base: While nearly three-quarters of the president’s supporters said violent crime was very important to their vote, less than half of the Biden supporters surveyed by Pew said the same thing.
Democrats Fire Back
”As long as I am president, I will defend the absolute right of every American citizen to live in security, dignity, and peace,” Trump said. “If the Democrat Party wants to stand with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters, and flag-burners, that is up to them, but I, as your president, will not be a part of it.”
But there’s also significant risks to Trump’s strategy.
Crime trailed the economy, health care, the coronavirus pandemic, and Supreme Court appointments when voters were asked by the Pew Research Center which topics were “very important” to their vote. And Democrats are increasingly looking to turn back his attacks. In a series of television interviews earlier Thursday, Biden argued Trump was seeding the unrest because he sees a political advantage.
“He views this as a political benefit to him. He’s rooting for more violence,” Biden said on MSNBC. “He’s encouraging this. He’s not diminishing it at all. This is his America now.”
Trump’s case also demands voters not blame him for the unrest but instead Democratic mayors and governors. It’s an argument that allies speaking before the president attempted to make, with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani saying that leftist groups had hijacked protests and New York Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch claiming “Democratic politicians have surrendered our streets and institutions.”
A Very Familiar Face
Biden on Thursday looked to combat that narrative, saying tensions had risen because of Trump’s refusal to acknowledge systemic racism in policing.
“The violence we’re witnessing is happening under Donald Trump. Not me,” Biden said in a statement. “It’s getting worse, and we know why.”
Trump’s campaign to paint Biden as a radical also faces another problem -- voters are largely familiar with a politician who has served in Washington for nearly five decades and whose primary campaign was predicated on the notion that he was the moderate choice who could best appeal to working class voters.
An ABC News poll released earlier this month found voters were as likely to describe Biden as “too conservative” versus “too liberal” -- underscoring his moderate bona fides.
In attacking Biden’s record and defending his own, Trump again made a number of false and misleading statements. He mischaracterized Biden’s energy and immigration policies, presenting more extreme positions of some progressive Democrats rather than what Biden himself has proposed.
He continued to use a coronavirus death measure that makes the U.S. look better compared to the rest of the world -- but even by that gauge, the rate is not “among one of the lowest in the world,” as Trump claimed. It ranks 115th.
And while he was correct that the U.S. has gained back a record 9 million jobs, those increases follow even bigger losses, and more than 1 million people are filing initial claims for unemployment each week. He claimed that the Paycheck Protection Program saved 50 million jobs; a U.S. Federal Reserve study put the number at 2.3 million as of June.
Changing voter perceptions may also prove difficult if they aren’t tuned in.
Ratings for the Republican National Convention lagged Democrats on each of the first three nights, with Pence drawing a mere 17.3 million viewers across six major broadcast and cable networks – 5.5 million fewer viewers than tuned in for Kamala Harris’s acceptance speech. Trump -- an omnipresent fixture thanks to his near-daily press conferences during the pandemic -- might also struggle to draw in viewers, particularly as Hurricane Laura and ongoing sports cancellations distract viewer attention.
Aides hinted Trump’s speech would contain exciting moments and big reveals, but instead the remarks felt more like a cursory State of the Union address with few moments likely to seize viral attention.
Perhaps the night’s most memorable moment came when Trump gloated about living in the White House.
“What’s the name of that building?” he shouted to the crowd as he turned and pointed at the Executive Mansion.
“The White House!” the crowd yelled.
“We’re here. And they’re not,” he said.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.