Analysis: Why the GOP convention was a missed opportunity

CLEVELAND -- Well, that didn't help. Republicans emerge from their 2016 convention into a long general-election campaign against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats with as many challenges and problems as they had going in. Donald Trump and the par...

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump (C) and vice presidential nominee Mike Pence (3rd from R) celebrate with family members at the conclusion of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

CLEVELAND - Well, that didn't help.

Republicans emerge from their 2016 convention into a long general-election campaign against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats with as many challenges and problems as they had going in.

Donald Trump and the party aimed to use the four-day spectacle to present themselves as the party of change with a refreshing, if contentious, new approach to government and politics. Instead, it was largely a missed opportunity to unify the party, show the country Trump can manage, and reach out to gays and other voters Republicans have had trouble winning.

Winning the presidency takes more than a well-told story. It requires assuring voters the nominee can be a leader with a clear mandate, someone who can lead this nation and demonstrate gravitas on a world stage.

Instead, the GOP convention raised two serious questions about Trump: whether he could organize anything and whether he has any new, dynamic ideas to fill in the blanks behind his quest to shake up government.


He tried hard Thursday night, declaring himself "the law and order candidate."

"The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end. Beginning on January 20 of 2017, safety will be restored," Trump vowed.

He also offered a message of hope.

"I am your voice," Trump declared. "I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it."

Those messages, though, still have to compete with the narrative of this convention, a week featuring a muddled jumble of messages. Conventions have been made-for-television events carefully timed to spotlight the candidate and his message. Cleveland's story lines often had little to do with boosting the nominee or his thoughts.

Monday night was overshadowed by controversy over how Melania Trump's speech was identical in spots to Michelle Obama's 2008 speech. Tuesday that buzz continued, and a speechwriter conceded Wednesday that she'd lifted passages.

On Wednesday night, the Ted Cruz blow-up overwhelmed everything, including vice presidential nominee Mike Pence's acceptance speech. Cruz's refusal to endorse Trump triggered a cascade of boos that drowned out the end of his speech.

That was a failure of management by Trump. He controlled who could speak, and he had the power to demand a concession or agreement from Cruz that he would get on board. But he gave Cruz the very stage to insult him.


"He doesn't inspire confidence. He inspires more fear," Bill Lee, a delegate from Pleasant Grove, Utah, said of Trump. "He hasn't proven anything to me."

Casey Dschaak, a Cruz backer from Chugiak, Alaska, has long had doubts about Trump. He still does, and at this point won't vote for him in the fall. "He has a lot to do to earn it," Dschaak said.

Trump didn't earn it with many new ideas. The only one drummed into viewers' minds night after night was that the nation isn't secure and the economy is flirting with havoc.

The convention's greatest moments of unity, and most recurring theme, came when delegates were lustily cheering that Hillary Clinton should be jailed or shouting approval when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani branded her a dangerous liar.

None of this gained Trump much. Those who already liked him came away even more pleased. "It's Donald Trump's America," beamed Cynthia Dunbar, a delegate from Forest, Va. "People are listening."

But doubters heard little to ease their concerns. The convention adopted a rigidly conservative party platform that Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, called the most anti-gay in the history of the party.

There also was little in the hall or the platform to ease the concern of many Mexican-Americans, whom Trump so loudly insulted when he declared his candidacy last year. Instead, the party officially reaffirmed Trump's yen to build a U.S.-Mexico wall, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the Senate's fiercest advocate of curbing illegal immigration, put Trump's name in nomination.

Marco Gutierrez, a Trump delegate from East Bay, Calif., conceded the candidate has some selling to do before he can win over more Latinos. He thought the GOP emphasis on family values would be a big selling point.


Trump's biggest hurdle, though, might involve the obsession with Clinton. It's one thing to savage an opponent - that's what conventions do - but encouraging chants of "Lock her up"? Or repeating the claim that she's responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, four years ago?

The convention's other task was giving itself momentum in state and local races. The party was in the unusual role of putting some careful distance between itself and Trump, whose negative poll numbers are high.

Republicans now hold 24 of the 34 Senate seats up for election in November, including seven in states President Barack Obama carried in 2012, states where Trump is unlikely to be a favorite. Democrats need a net gain of four seats to win control if Clinton becomes president, five if Trump triumphs.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., arguably the most vulnerable of the seven, not only didn't show here, he's also been vocal in his disdain for Trump. "He does not have the temperament to serve as our commander in chief," Kirk reiterated last week.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who struggled with his Trump endorsement before signing on last month, was well aware of the pitfalls. In his convention speech, he mentioned Trump only three times.

The rest of Ryan's address was almost a manifesto for those who want to divorce themselves from Trump. In three sentences, he summed up what he wanted his party to stand for.

"We believe in a free society where aspiration and effort can make the difference in every life," Ryan said, "where your starting point is not your destiny and where your first chance is not your only chance."

He talked about a "reformed tax code that rewards free enterprise." He spoke about health care changes, and strategies for dealing with poverty.


Among the speakers who came afterward: the general manager of Trump's winery, a Trump daughter and a Trump son. Talking about Trump.

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