WASHINGTON – It was Vice President Mike Pence’s big night at the Republican National Convention, and he and his fellow speakers delivered an effective message to moderate Republicans, women and independent voters.
After two nights of convention programming that were dominated by rhetorical and actual appearances from President Donald Trump, on Wednesday Trump, who trails in the polls to Democrat Joe Biden, barely showed up on screen at all.
Trump was certainly mentioned by speakers, but not with the same messianic devotion that many of Monday’s speakers expressed. While the president appeared at the end of the broadcast, he did not perform any staged presidential duties at the White House like he did on Tuesday, when he led a naturalization ceremony and pardoned a former inmate.
It was Pence himself who set the tone for the night, delivering a 30-minute speech that contained much less of the fear mongering and hyperbole that characterizes many of Trump’s political speeches.
Instead of painting a falsely rosy picture of where the country is today like Trump often does, Pence acknowledged the pain and strife many Americans are experiencing with the coronavirus.
“Tonight, our hearts are with all the families who have lost loved ones,” he said. “We mourn with those who mourn, and we grieve with those who grieve. And this night I know millions of Americans will pause and pray for God’s comfort to each of you.”
That sentiment stands in stark contrast to Trump’s failure to directly address the tragic loss of more than 175,000 Americans who have died of Covid-19 in the past six months, save to say in a recent interview, “it is what it is.”
This is not to say that Pence gave a “Kumbayah” speech. He did not. This is still politics after all. Pence took plenty of shots at Biden and Democrats. This included familiar false claims, like that Biden supports “open borders” and defunding the police. Biden supports neither.
Yet coupled with the rest of the speakers on Wednesday, the overall impression of the night was not that the apocalypse is coming. After four years of Trump at the helm of a party that has alienated moderate Republicans and independent voters, Wednesday offered a glimpse of what could lure those voters back.
Rising Republican all-stars
Several of the GOP’s most promising politicians spoke Wednesday night, including Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, New York Reps. Lee Zeldin and Elise Stefanik, and Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw.
Three of these lawmakers are also military veterans: Ernst, Crenshaw and Zeldin. On a night whose theme was “Land of Heroes,” they represented a post-9/11 generation of servicemembers who have been elected to Congress as Republicans.
“We need to remind ourselves what heroism really is,” said Crenshaw, in a speech memorable in that he never once mentioned Trump. “Heroism is self-sacrifice, not moralizing and lecturing over others when they disagree. Heroism is grace, not perpetual outrage. Heroism is rebuilding our communities, not destroying them,” he said.
Stefanik spoke of her blue collar roots in upstate New York. “I was the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college,” she said, and “ran for Congress to serve Upstate New York. I am proudly the youngest Republican woman ever elected to Congress in history.”
Zeldin told a personal story about his prematurely born twin daughters, but used it as a springboard to praise Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in his eastern Long Island district.
Trump, he said “delivered for our frontline workers. In the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic – an unforeseeable crisis sent to us from a faraway land – the president delivered for our everyday heroes.”
He added: “We weren’t Republicans or Democrats. We were Americans first, working together to get through this as one nation, with the Trump administration eager to do everything in its power to assist us however possible.”
To be sure, Zeldin’s cherry-picked anecdote glossed over the widely panned federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. But more notable was the fact that Zeldin didn’t use his speech to bash Democrats, just to praise first responders and Trump for helping them.
Women for Trump
Three women who’ve worked for Trump in politics also offered a softer picture of Trump Wednesday: Departing White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Trump campaign adviser Lara Trump, who is married to the president’s son Eric Trump.
“A woman in a leadership role still can seem novel,” said Conway. “Not so for President Trump. For decades, he has elevated women to senior positions in business and in government. He confides in and consults us, respects our opinions, and insists that we are on equal footing with the men.”
Outgoing Counselor to US President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, addresses the Republican National Convention in a pre-recorded speech at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, DC, on August 26, 2020.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
Much as she has for the past four years, Conway ignored the president’s decades-long history of sexist comments and the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse leveled against him by multiple women.
McEnany shared her personal story of undergoing a prophylactic double mastectomy, but she also spoke about being a new mom in a high-stress job.
“When I started working for President Trump, my husband and I became pregnant with our first child. I would see President Trump at rallies, and he would routinely ask me how my baby was doing,” said McEnany. “The same way President Trump has supported me, he supports you.”
And it’s precisely this “you” of McEnany’s that gives away who the real audience was Wednesday night.
After narrowly winning suburban voters in 2016, Trump has bled support there, especially among women, who helped to deliver the House to Democrats in the 2018 midterms. A July NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Trump trailing Biden 39% to 56% among suburban women.
Trump has repeatedly tried to win these voters, whom he refers to as “suburban housewives,” in 2020 with antiquated, racially charged scare tactics like claiming that low-income housing is going to “destroy the suburbs.”
Led by Pence and Conway, the Republican speakers on Wednesday offered an alternative to the “suburban housewife” narrative favored by Trump, one that more closely mirrors both the concerns and the lived experiences of American women.
One good night will not be enough on its own to overcome Trump’s polling deficit with this crucial voting bloc. But with less than three months before Election Day, Wednesday offered an outline of what an effective Republican outreach effort could look like.