It was a night meant to merge the dueling messages that consumed the previous two nights of the Republican National Convention – one part compassionate conservatism for the pre-Trump GOP, the other red meat for Trump’s liberal-loathing base.
“America’s heroism is not relegated to the battlefield… It’s the parent who will re-learn algebra because there’s no way they’re letting their kid fall behind while schools are closed. It’s the cop that gets spit on one day and will save a child’s life the next,” proclaimed Rep. Den Crenshaw, a Texas Republican who spent a decade serving as a Navy SEAL, in a speech that left out any mention of Trump.
In the night’s closing speech, Vice President Mike Pence expressed specific admiration for the resilient attitude Americans have shown in the midst of a pandemic that has stolen 180,000 lives in the United States: “A country doesn’t get through such a time unless its people find the strength within. The response by doctors, nurses, first responders, farmers, factory workers, truckers, and everyday Americans who are putting the health and safety of their neighbors first has been nothing short of heroic.”
In her own remarks, outgoing White House counselor Kellyanne Conway portrayed Trump as an ally of “everyday heroes” such as the small business owners who were forced to shutter their livelihoods in the wake of violent demonstrations this summer and coronavirus lockdowns. “He will stand up for you,” she declared.
It was an unexpected development after back-to-back nights of disjointed speeches that illuminated the competing strategies at the center of Trump’s 2020 campaign.
Ahead of Wednesday’s program, one 2016 Trump campaign aide said the convention had failed to make “a coherent and compelling case” for supporting the president in part because each speaker appeared to be courting different voters instead of delivering messages with cross-appeal.
A Republican consultant who has tuned in each evening described the programming as “schizophrenic” up until Wednesday night. He had watched some speakers embrace the “big tent” approach — aiming their remarks at suburban women and voters of color who’ve lost patience with Trump’s antics but may have benefited from his policies in a pre-coronavirus economy — while other guests riled up the president’s working-class base with dramatized claims of socialism and progressive reforms.
“They’ve been trying to execute two strategies at once,” said GOP consultant Rob Stuzman. “They are doing and saying things that are meant to turn out aggrieved non-college educated white voters — particularly men — who didn’t vote for Trump four years ago and then also using snazzy videos about small business owners, and speakers like Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, to reach suburban populations.”
“I thought Nick Sandmann was very sympathetic to the type of working-class voter I’m talking about who’s deeply skeptical of the media and media bias. Conversely, I don’t think you turn off those same voters with speakers like Tim Scott or Daniel Cameron,” Stutzman added, referencing the attorney general of Kentucky, whose standout appearance on Tuesday drew widespread praise.
Not every speaker on Wednesday avoided the same exaggerated language that dominated so many speeches earlier this week. Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn warned viewers that Democrats “would keep you locked in your house until you become dependent on the government for anything.”
“That sounds a lot like Communist China to me,” Blackburn said.
New York Rep. Elise Stefanik said the media maintained “a needless obsession” with the “illegal impeachment sham” Trump faced earlier this year. Stefanik’s profile rose significantly during House impeachment hearings over the president’s dealings with Ukraine last fall after she emerged as one of the president’s most outspoken defenders.
When it was Pence’s turn to close out the evening ahead of the president’s solo speech on Thursday, the vice president fused together sharp critiques of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, boundless praise for Trump and the same recognition of heroic Americans that served as the central theme of the evening.
Speaking from Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the site of inspiration behind the famous words of the national anthem, Pence confronted criticisms of Trump head-on but in such a way that simultaneously flattered his boss.
“I’ve learned a few things watching him deal with all we’ve been through these past four years. He does things his own way, on his own terms. Not much gets past him and when he has an opinion, he’s liable to share it,” the vice president quipped. “He’s certainly kept things interesting, but more importantly he’s kept his word.”
Rebutting the prevailing criticism that Trump botched his early response to the coronavirus pandemic, Pence insisted the president bought the administration time “to launch the greatest national mobilization since World War II” when he imposed sweeping travel restrictions on non-U.S. citizens earlier this year.
But Pence, who has led the federal government’s coronavirus task force since Trump assigned him the role in late February, also acknowledged the depths of loss and economic devastation caused by the lethal virus in a way that most speakers on previous nights of the convention chose to ignore, apart from the first lady.
“Tonight our hearts are with all of the families who have lost loved ones,” Pence said. “We mourn 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.”
Pence’s gentle defenses of the president didn’t stop him from excoriating Biden in other parts of his remarks. He cast his predecessor’s initial private opposition to the military raid that killed Osama bin Laden as a sign of weakness on foreign policy, and accused Democrats of dodging policy discussions at their own nominating convention so as not to alienate centrist voters.