The Circus Comes to Cleveland
Spoiler alert: There wasn’t a single policy proposal in the “Make America Safe Again" day of programming at the Republican national convention.
So first, the spoiler: There wasn’t a single policy proposal in the “Make America Safe Again” day of programming at the Republican national convention. It was a huge missed opportunity to explain what conservative foreign and defense policies could do for our country. Speakers weren’t the only ones to miss the opportunity. Participants, who were in short supply, did too.
Instead of policy, we saw character attacks on the governor of the state hosting the convention, floor fights to unbind delegates quashed by Republican National Committee operatives in ways sure to embitter existing divisions in the party, a walk out by the Utah state delegation, and an odd collection of mismatched speeches long on vituperation. Most oddly, for a convention hyped as entertainment, it was tedious.
Donald Trump strangely counter-programmed the emotional punch of the day, the speech condemning Hillary Clinton by the mother of a Benghazi casualty, by doing television interviews at the same time, during which he denied that he is a racist. It was the same lack of discipline that had him intrude on FBI Director Comey’s peroration on Clinton’s illegalities to defend Saddam Hussein as an ally against terrorists.
Trump could take a lesson or two from the superior counter-programming on display by Paul Ryan and Ben Sasse. Ryan, even as he called for party unity, spoke at a Wall Street Journal event, emphasizing that Trump “was not my kind of conservative.” He tweeted a picture with all the Republican interns on Capitol Hill. He defended Ohio Governor John Kasich. And he tried to conjure up an election of “less personality contests and more ideas contests.” Sasse was subtler (and can afford to be, as he is not the senior Republican in government), tweeting pictures of his five-year-old son’s baseball game. It was a message perfectly matched to his moral outrage at the presidential candidates from both parties this year.
The national security programming featured several veterans: Senator Tom Cotton, Marcus Luttrell (the Navy SEAL featured in “Lone Survivor”), Mark Geist and John Tiegan (from the security team in Benghazi), retired Defense Intelligence Agency director Michael Flynn, and Senator Joni Ernst. Luttrell and Cotton offered standard Republican conservative fare (Luttrell sounding very much like an aspiring Cotton); Geist, Tiegan, and Pat Smith (the mother of Sean Smith) pounded away at Benghazi, to little effect. Mike Flynn mostly chanted “USA!” with the crowd, and said “Islamist terrorism” over and over.
The time would have been much better spent outlining the main national security challenges the country faces: our national debt, a rising and increasingly militant China, Russia overturning 70 years of order in Europe, and the erosion of our alliance relationships that keep management of the international order affordable and acceptable to the American people. But that would require a candidate that recognized and addressed those problems.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford is trying to discourage service men and women (and, I would guess, even former service men and women), from taking a high-profile role in these febrile political times. He is right to do so. The American military is more widely trusted and respected than any other institution in American life because it is considered apolitical. That reputation is an invaluable commodity, but one that is eroding. According to YouGov surveys conducted for the Hoover Institution’s project on civil-military relations, policy elites already believe the military behaves no differently than politicians. As Shadow Government’s own Peter Feaver has argued, the perception will make it more difficult for military leaders to effectively advise political leaders, and will in time erode public support for our military. Watching the parade of stingingly political veterans on the GOP dais, I was convinced of Peter’s argument and shared Dunford’s concern.
Melania Trump gave a speech of nice platitudes, so strongly in contravention of her husband’s policies and statements as to lack credibility. She reminded us that societies are judged by their compassion for the least fortunate. With any other candidate, it would have been actually quite beautiful — a potential first lady exemplifying America’s tradition as a magnet for immigration and opportunity. If she had told humanizing stories about her husband, as is the tradition for political spouses in these circumstances, the speech might have gotten traction, giving a that sense Trump is more likable in person than his public caricature, and that you could trust the man even if you didn’t like his policies. But she didn’t; to the contrary, she oddly and repeatedly referred to her husband as “Donald J. Trump,” which made this whole speech feel contrived — a speechwriter’s achievement, not the person delivering the speech.
Perhaps “Make America Work Again” day and “Make America Great Again” day will dazzle; so far, the only ways in which the Republican national convention has been interesting are those which showcase the distress of conservatives, not their confidence in the country’s future and advocacy of policies to advance our interests.
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