Night one of the Republican National Convention exceeded my overall expectations on a number of levels, including production values that surpassed what the Democrats offered last week. It was an effective opening effort, mixing hardcore red meat for the party faithful with compelling appeals to more moderate voters. In the key 10 pm ET hour, the party put on a very strong program. It opened with a stirring campaign ad-style video, followed by a clip about the Trump administration's focus and successes in the realm of bringing home American hostages incarcerated abroad. This transitioned into a segment of President Trump interviewing a number of these freed Americans. The segment appealed to voters' inherent patriotism, highlighted a real area of Trump's success, and illustrated the "dealmaker" talking point that Trump advocates often raise.
Following an impassioned, deeply heartfelt pro-America and anti-Communism stemwinder from a Cuban immigrant, Republicans aired a video that featured Bernie Sanders' DNC boast that his ideas that were once considered radical are now becoming mainstream among Democrats. It was a juicy sound bite for the GOP, which is seeking to tie Joe Biden to harder-left elements of the party. A subsequent vignette starred a pair of Latina sisters, the daughters of an immigrant, talking about hard work and the American dream, and praising PPP for helping to save a family small business. Then came the major primetime speeches, with the president's eldest son sandwiched between two South Carolinians: Former governor Nikki Haley, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations under the Trump administration, and Sen. Tim Scott. Their speeches were excellent.
Haley cleverly opened her remarks by calling back to another former UN Ambassador's fondly-remembered speech at a Republican convention, likening her role to that of Jeane Kirkpatrick in 1984. She proceeded to prosecute a case against the Democrats, and the Obama/Biden administration in particular, on both foreign policy and domestic issues -- drawing on her two distinct roles in high political office. But it was her full-throated defense of America itself that really broke through:
In much of the Democratic Party, it's now fashionable to say that America is racist. That is a lie. America is not a racist country. This is personal for me. I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. They came to America and settled in a small southern town. My father wore a turban. My mother wore a sari. I was a brown girl in a black and white world. We faced discrimination and hardship. But my parents never gave in to grievance and hate. My mom built a successful business. My dad taught 30 years at a historically black college. And the people of South Carolina chose me as their first minority and first female governor.
She then waded into the thorny issue of race and threaded that needle rather deftly:
America is a story that's a work in progress. Now is the time to build on that progress, and make America even freer, fairer, and better for everyone. That's why it's tragic to see so much of the Democratic Party turn a blind eye toward riots and rage. The American people know we can do better. And of course we know that every single black life is valuable. The black cops who've been shot in the line of duty -- they matter. The black small business owners who've watched their life's work go up in flames -- they matter. The black kids who've been gunned down on the playground -- their lives matter too. And their lives are being ruined and stolen by the violence on our streets. It doesn't have to be like this.
It wasn't like this in South Carolina five years ago. Our state came face-to-face with evil. A white supremacist walked into Mother Emanuel Church during Bible Study. Twelve African Americans pulled up a chair and prayed with him for an hour. Then he began to shoot. After that horrific tragedy, we didn't turn against each other. We came together -- black and white, Democrat and Republican. Together, we made the hard choices needed to heal -- and removed a divisive symbol, peacefully and respectfully. What happened then should give us hope now. America isn't perfect. But the principles we hold dear are perfect. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that even on our worst day, we are blessed to live in America.
Democrats really set themselves up for Republican "law and order" attacks landing, having refused to even acknowledge the rioting and crime spikes over four nights of their own convention (more on this later). As strong as Haley was, Scott was the star of the night, in my book. He was a superb choice to bat cleanup. He is naturally very likable and managed to assail Democrats with a velvet glove; disappointed, but not angry. He rightly hammered the opposition party on police reform (if anything, he pulled punches) and offered some much-needed fact checks of Democratic talking points on the tax reform law, of which he was a leading champion. His line about senators failing civics was funny and well-delivered. But his toughest body blows were landed against Joe Biden. Not by calling him a senile dope, but by castigating his record:
I'm going to ask you...the American people...not to look simply at what the candidates say...but to look back at what they've done. This election is about your future, and it's critical to paint a full picture of the records of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Joe Biden said if a black man didn't vote for him, he wasn't truly black. Joe Biden said black people are a monolithic community. Joe Biden said poor kids can be just as smart as white kids. And while his words are one thing, his actions take it to a whole new level. In 1994, Biden led the charge on a crime bill that put millions of black Americans behind bars... President Trump's criminal justice reform law fixed many of the disparities Biden created and made our system more fair and just for all Americans. Joe Biden failed our nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities... heaping blame on them as they fought to ensure our young folks had access to higher education.
Once again, to clean up Joe Biden's mess, President Trump signed into law historically high funding for HBCUs, as well as a bill to give them permanent funding for the first time ever! And now, Joe Biden wants to come for your pocketbooks.... Unless you're a blue state millionaire. I'm serious -- that's one of their solutions for the pandemic. They want more money you're your pocket...going to help Manhattan elites and Hollywood moguls get a tax break. Republicans, however, passed President Trump's once-in-a-generation tax reform bill that lowered taxes for single moms, working families and those in need. So, when it comes to what Joe Biden says he'll do...Look at his actions. Look at his policies. Look at what he already did and did not do while he's been in Washington for 47 years.
Twisting the knife on Democrats' proposed tax cuts for rich people in blue states as a supposed component of COVID relief was a very nice touch. And like Haley, Scott shared his own family's story to great effect, tracing his own personal history of an incredible American journey from poverty to the United States Senate:
After starting my business and spending time in local government, I ran for Congress in 2010. The district is based in Charleston, South Carolina...where the Civil War started...against a son of our legendary Senator, Strom Thurmond. You may be asking yourself how does a poor black kid...from a single parent household...run and win a race in a crowded Republican primary against a Thurmond? Because of the evolution of the heart, in an overwhelmingly white district... the voters judged me on the content of my character, not the color of my skin...The truth is, our nation's arc always bends back towards fairness. We are not fully where we want to be...but thank God we are not where we used to be! We are always striving to be better...When we stumble, and we will, we pick ourselves back up and try again.
...We must focus on the promise of the American journey. I know that journey well. My grandfather's 99th birthday would have been tomorrow. Growing up, he had to cross the street if a white person was coming. He suffered the indignity of being forced out of school as a third grader to pick cotton, and never learned to read or write. Yet, he lived to see his grandson become the first African American to be elected to both the United States House and Senate. Our family went from Cotton to Congress in one lifetime. And that's why I believe the next American century can be better than the last.
The "Cotton to Congress" line was profound and instantly quotable. Scott's full speech was nearly pitch-perfect:
There were some less-than-stellar performances along the way, and I think the ongoing pandemic could have used a bit more attention in the crucial final hour. The red meat was sometimes too red for my taste (though base motivation is also an important task of these events), and I could certainly do without some of the presidential worship and speakers directly and effusively addressing Trump himself, rather than viewers (i.e., voters). But in general, I think the GOP and Trump campaign has to be very pleased with what they presented to the nation on Monday evening. They put on an emotionally compelling, eminently watchable show that delivered message discipline and focused on an array of issues and policies. One down, three to go. I'll leave you with this:
I spent a few hours today talking with some Republican suburban women - who Trump must keep in his corner if he’s going to hold North Carolina - and the messaging at tonight’s convention was tailor made for them.— Chris Jansing (@ChrisJansing) August 25, 2020
UPDATE - My analysis on Fox this morning: