Can the GOP 'Change the Conversation'? | Opinion

In the TV series Mad Men, a period drama about New York ad executives in the 1960s, the fictional character Don Draper famously begins his pitch to a potential client, "If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation." Given their candidates' deficit in the national surveys and low standing on handling issues of concern to voters, Republicans had every incentive to change the conversation during their recently concluded national convention.

If the major objective of the Democratic convention was to make voters feel more comfortable with Joe Biden and his party, the imperative here was to improve the President's standing by scaring the wits out of voters and citing Biden and his VP choice Senator Kamala Harris' "far left" positions on hot button issues of civil unrest, forced integration, weakness abroad, and unchecked immigration. Kimberly Guilfoyle certified her new status as an almost family member with a slashing attack against the "far left," open borders and amnesty, and "cosmopolitan elites." Nikki Haley chimed in that Biden's vision was "socialism" and that his bosses would be "Pelosi, Bernie Sanders and 'The Squad'." Former Florida AG Pam Bondi delivered a slashing attack on Biden's ethics. Congresswoman Elaine Stefanik, once an official in George W. Bush's White House, chimed in with a broadside on the "Democrats' far left socialist agenda."

The noteworthy thing about this strategy is that many of these issues are either not currently on the front burner of voters' concerns or the public views them quite differently than do Republicans. The coronavirus is THE major concern, and the GOP speakers tried mightily to change the conversation by noting how effective the Administration has really been in combatting COVID. A film cited familiar presidential talking points such as the president's order banning travel from China, Administration efforts to provide equipment and manpower to state governors, and a failed response from the World Health Organization. In a separate segment, the president spoke in the White House with first responders and health care workers. The hope is that the public will become more supportive and understanding of Administration efforts to deal with the virus, admittedly a tall order.

On civil unrest, the speakers went full bore against the protesters and accused Democrats of advocating defunding of local police departments. Current polls show public approval of at least some of the concerns raised by protestors and favor a broader response than the Nixon-Trump law and order posture. The GOP doubled down on Trump's get tough approach. A St. Louis couple indicted for pointing guns at protestors outside their home decried Marxist "mobs," anarchists and the end of the suburbs. In an address whose forcefulness rivaled Kimberly Guilfoyle's, Rudy Guiliani called Biden a "Trojan horse ready to execute pro criminal policies." Governor Kristi Noem spoke against "violent mobs in Democrat run cities." While these cities are dominated by Democrats, the unrest is occurring during Trump's presidency, perhaps underlining the limited ability of any president to impact local law enforcement decisions.

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On the economy, speakers asked the country to look back to the strong economy prior to the advent of COVID. Larry Kudlow, the president's chief economic advisor, argued that the economy was poised to bounce back quickly, but that in any event, Democratic tax and spend proposals would be disastrous to the country's long run economic health. This is a real point of Democratic vulnerability, as the wish list of tax increases is breathtaking. However, only Senators Tim Scott and VP Mike Pence offered a coherent critique of the Biden and Democratic plans to inhibit growth with more taxes and regulations.

As far as a second term agenda, convention speakers had very little to say. Talking points released by the campaign the weekend prior included literally dozens of proposals. This is less an agenda than a wish list. It is still unclear what specific proposals would constitute a working agenda for a second Trump term.
Vice President Mike Pence offered a strong critique of Biden and the Democrats' more leftist policies. Notably he expressed sympathy for COVID victims and for those impacted by Hurricane Laura but punted on any details of a second term agenda.

That left it up to the president in his final convention appearance. Speaking at length at the White House to a large crowd packed together without masks, he amplified his attacks on Biden and the Democrats – on China, public safety, outsourcing jobs, bad trade deals, soft on terrorism, tax increases, abortion on demand among many other topics. Sadly, outside of promising school choice which is primarily a state and local responsibility, he had few specifics about what he would actually do should the voters award him "Four More Years."

In a polarized environment with relatively few persuadable voters, Republicans would be satisfied if they could at least improve public support for their policy positions among the general public. Right now, voters favor Democrats to do a better job handling every major issue save the economy.

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The other essential goal, of course, is to induce an outsized turnout among groups favorable to Trump Administration policies, specifically Evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, non-college white voters, pro life advocates, and gun owners. If indeed the national surveys are wrong, it is certainly not because Democratic leaning voter groups contain hidden Trump supporters. Rather, Trump campaign officials have asserted that Republican leaning voter groups will turn out in greater numbers than pollsters predict. The speeches were certainly a hit in these precincts.

The convention speakers' list was dominated by not only Trump supporters, which would be expected, but also by family members (7 including Guilfoyle), White House officials and a few right-wing celebrities. In a major break with tradition, the sitting Secretary of State addressed this political gathering from Israel. The president himself appeared four consecutive nights. He checked in from the White House where he used his power to accept his party's nomination, pardon an inmate, conduct a naturalization ceremony for new citizens, and to chat with health care workers and first responders, an unprecedented use of the White House for a political event. Conservatives once railed against violations of the Hatch Act by "leftist" federal workers, but...never mind.

I counted exactly two governors as speakers in a party where governors were dominant as recently as the later Obama years. Is the Republican bench, which seemed to be overflowing with talent just a few years ago, now so limited?
Finally, is it really surprising that the GOP didn't adopt a platform this year? With all of the changes wracking the party since 2016, its doubtful there is a Republican consensus on much these days. If Trump-Pence wins a second term, such discord will surely hamper their ability to implement their agenda, such as it is. If Republicans lose, the party will have to first find their philosophical footing again before they can effectively compete for electoral success. It's called changing the conversation.

Frank Donatelli served as assistant for political affairs to President Ronald Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

Can the GOP 'Change the Conversation'? | Opinion | Opinion