After the strong indictment during the Democratic National Convention of President Trump’s failure to manage the Covid-19 crisis and address the racial divisions in the United States, many Democrats and mainstream media outlets expected the Republicans to be rabid in their own Convention, slinging mud and trying to drag Joe Biden down as much as possible.
There were indeed plenty of attacks on the dangers of an alleged socialist dystopia that would kill democracy and free enterprise, but the Republicans did something else as well: they sought to present the human side of Donald Trump, showing his empathy and caring for both family and personal friends and regular citizens, and his positive work behind the scenes on issues such as bringing home hostages, helping former prisoners, and even naturalizing immigrants.
Several of the speakers addressed the key point directly, essentially saying that while Trump may be direct and tough, he’s actually a really good guy behind the scenes. The female speakers in particular, from First Lady Melania Trump, to the president’s daughter Ivanka and advisors such as Kellyanne Conway and Kayleigh Mcenany, stressed that while many may not like the president’s communication style, he has strong principles and knows how to get things done.
Perhaps it’s a bit late to present Donald Trump as an empathetic leader who cares about everyone, given that he has preferred tough talk over the past four years, mostly reverting to frontal attacks and personal boasts when under fire, but this approach shows one of the components of what appears to have been a fairly effective Convention, aimed at both projecting a positive image of the president’s accomplishments, and wooing key groups of voters.
Apart from women, the famous “suburban housewives” considered to be essential for a Republican victory, the RNC also made a concerted effort to woo African-Americans, with a long line of speakers who told their own stories of not only how the Trump presidency has been positive for them, but rejected the view of a country defined by racism; our choices – as Senator Tim Scott effectively put it – must be based on content and people’s actions, not cultural divisions.
On the other hand, numerous speakers decried the violence of the demonstrations in the streets of many cities in response to police brutality, and in trumpeting the “law and order” line that the president hopes will bring him votes from a sort-of Nixonian silent majority, he missed an opportunity in his own speech, offering practically nothing in the way of sympathy for the victims of police misconduct; some empathy on this point might have shown that the president himself was committed to adopting a more unifying approach, rather than just searching for a useful campaign tactic.
As often happens, the two parties talked past each other in their respective Conventions, painting entirely different pictures of the state of the country, rather than engaging directly in a way that would allow voters to actually assess who’s right. The Republicans tried to counter the Democrats’ message of a deep economic crisis by focusing on how Trump created “the greatest economy ever” in his first three years in office. It is actually a dubious claim if you take a closer look at the numbers, given the limited growth in real income in recent years, along with the stalling of job quality and the recession in the manufacturing sector, even before the Covid-19 crisis.
Trump has indeed made some important economic changes, renegotiating trade deals to address the distortions of globalization, but the road to rebuilding American industry and production – not to mention infrastructure, a key 2016 promise – is still very long. Given the circumstances, it’s a whole lot better for Republicans to trumpet the positive economic numbers from before the crisis than engage on the problems of the last few months; polls still show Trump with a slight advantage over Biden on who is trusted to rebuild the economy, but there is significant risk in claiming that things have never been better when much of the middle class faces unstable working conditions and high costs in areas such as housing and healthcare.
One of the major criticisms of the Democratic Convention was the lack of focus on specifics; the Republicans didn’t do much better. On foreign policy, a few speakers did mention the folly of endless wars, but they were more than compensated for by the interventionist agenda of prominent voices such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who did their best to turn Trump’s approach of tough talk but little intervention into a revival of neocon fantasies about combatting autocrats and spreading democracy. Trump’s inner circle is stronger on this point, but the fight over US foreign policy has been a defining characteristic of the past four years, and does not look likely to go away any time soon.
The president had some of his best moments when he attacked Joe Biden on this front, reminding everyone how the Democratic candidate has enabled all of the US’s military interventions in recent decades; he also found a phrase which he will likely repeat often to refer to the Democrats’ support for globalization, calling Biden’s program “made in China”. Trump’s attacks can be effective in these areas, reminding voters of why they supported an outsider who promised to shake up the system that has been failing for too long, and that offering a 47-year veteran of Washington as the savior – no matter how decent a guy he seems to be – is not exactly encouraging.
In the past two weeks Biden’s lead in the polls has fallen slightly, both nationally and in swing states. Yet a closer look at the polling averages, with weighting based on quality of surveys such as that performed by FiveThirtyEight, shows that Biden still holds a lead of over 8 points overall, and is up by 5 points or more in the key Midwestern states and Florida, more than enough to get him over the finish line. The Conventions are unlikely to have a major impact, but it is reasonable to expect polls to tighten a bit over the next month. For now, though, the stability that has characterized the race since the spring is still with us, and given the underlying factors at play, we probably will not see a major change before November, barring outside events, such as a sudden improvement of the health emergency.
For Trump, the aim is to target specific constituencies – such as women and African-Americans as mentioned above – and to try to define Biden in a negative light. This hasn’t worked yet, given the Democratic candidate’s image as a moderate (four years ago national polling actually showed people tended to view Mr. Trump as more moderate than Hillary Clinton), but potential gaffes by Biden and continued violence in the streets still offer opportunities for marginal changes in impressions.
In addition, there is the huge unknown of how vote counting will go on election night, which could stretch into election week: legal battles are already underway across the country on how votes will be counted, and there’s little doubt that some jurisdictions will face logistical challenges and political disputes that could generate significant uncertainty regarding the outcome.
Both sides incessantly repeat that this election is the “most important in our lifetimes”, if not even in the history of the country! If this is the case, the best thing the two candidates could do is start talking more seriously about content, rather than just briefly mentioning key issues as part of their overall narrative about how the other side will take us into darkness and tyranny.
Politics is at its best, reaching the level of statecraft, when leaders explain important ideas to the people, generating participation and dialogue regarding the true issues facing a nation. There is still little in-depth discussion of the major policy shifts currently underway, which promise to drive the decisions of the US institutions in the coming years. From the massive public intervention to save the economy, to the focus on reshoring of essential areas of production, to the newly-aggressive approach to China, Democrats and Republicans alike are responding to strong geopolitical currents that will bring fundamental change to both the United States and the rest of the West in the coming years. Behind the apocalyptic cultural rhetoric of both parties, voters are not being given much of a chance to understand the true import of this transformation.