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Mike Pence goes MAGA-A, the Catholic breach and focus on the family: Takeaways from RNC Night 3

Tim Alberta

Make no mistake: This is a role Pence is playing. The vice president knows full well how Trump has inflamed racist and xenophobic instincts on the right because, back in 2015, he called Trump’s proposed Muslim ban “offensive and unconstitutional.” He knows exactly how crude and misogynistic the president can be because, after the “Access Hollywood“ tape dropped in October 2016, Pence went into a bunker and contemplated quitting the campaign.

That Pence personally knows Trump‘s innumerable flaws but professionally describes him as flawless illuminates not only Pence’s loyalty to Trump but Trump’s loyalty to Pence. For all the breathless intra-party speculation about the president replacing his No. 2 in dramatic fashion, perhaps elevating Nikki Haley to the ticket, that was never going to happen, and for one simple reason: Trump sees Pence as his most reliable, most steadfast surrogate, someone who puts on a positive face no matter how negative the circumstances.

Pence rewarded that faith tonight by doing what he does best: paying homage to the valiant, faultless president
most Americans have never heard of.

My takeaways:

10:43 p.m. ET

Race on Repeat

It seems that every nominating convention features a single line, a single catch-phrase, that gets used and re-used to the point of echoing in viewers’ ears by the time the event has wrapped up.

In 2012, it was “You didn’t build that” — the quote from Barack Obama, taken somewhat out of context, that Republicans recited approximately one thousand times over the course of four days to argue that the president was hostile to small businesses.

In 2016 it was “Lock her up,” from General Michael Flynn about Hillary Clinton.

This time, it’s an abbreviated quote from Joe Biden: “You ain’t Black.”

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The remark came at the end of a testy interview between Biden and Charlamagne tha God, a popular black radio host who pressed the Democratic nominee on his commitment to the Black community. When the host expressed disappointment that Biden’s time was up, saying he had more questions to ask, Biden told him, “You’ve got more questions? Well I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”

Biden came under immediate heat for the comment and quickly apologized. But it has provided valuable ammunition for Republicans to argue that Democrats in general — and Biden in particular — are taking Black voters for granted.

From what I’ve seen, every single Black speaker at the GOP convention — and if I recall, at least one or two white speakers — slammed Biden for the “you ain’t Black” quote. That it has become a staple of the programming reflects well on the people who produced it: Never before has a Republican convention featured so many Black speakers, and clearly, the attack carries far more weight coming from them.

It surely is maddening to Democrats, who have made Trump’s racist rhetoric a foundation of their appeal not only to minority voters but to college-educated whites, that Republicans are turning the tables and accusing their nominee of racial antagonism. But there can be no question: Biden brought this on himself.

“Truly stunning how many Black folks at the RNC reference Biden’s ‘ain’t Black’ comment, and no matter how opportunistic they’re being, they’re not wrong,” tweeted Briahna Joy Gray, the national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. “Biden gave them that ammunition when he decided he didn’t have to earn the Black vote.”

10:15 p.m. ET

Tim the TV Critic

One observation about the programming flow: After a stale, crawling show on Monday — speeches, speeches, more speeches, many of them from unremarkable figures — Republicans spiced up the convention on Tuesday. The second act was far more engaging, an interesting mix of segments touching on different themes that were interwoven with more compelling speeches.

But Wednesday night feels a lot more like Monday than Tuesday. The production value is decent enough, but things are moving awfully slow, and there hasn’t been any change of pace to keep the audience engaged. It’s a surprising step back after Tuesday’s relative success.

We’re entering the stretch now, so don’t expect any major surprises — just a few more speeches before Vice President Mike Pence delivers the nightcap.

9:58 p.m. ET

The Catholic Breach

Republicans aren’t just using the issue of abortion to argue for a second Trump term — they’re wielding it subtly as a weapon to undermine the religious bona fides of Joe Biden, a lifelong Roman Catholic.

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Sister Dede Byrne, a nun who belongs to the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and once attended medical school at Georgetown, delivered one of the most direct appeals on the issue of abortion that I can remember.

“As Christians, we first met Jesus as a stirring embryo in the womb of an unwed mother and saw him born nine months later in the poverty of the cave. It’s no coincidence that Jesus stood up for what was just and was ultimately crucified because what he said wasn’t politically correct or fashionable,” she said. “As followers of Christ, we are called to stand up for life and against the politically correct or fashionable today. We must fight against a legislative agenda that supports and even celebrates destroying life in the womb.”

She added: “Which brings me to why I’m here tonight. Donald Trump is the most pro-life president that this nation has ever had, defending life at all stages. His belief in the sanctity of life transcends politics. President Trump will stand up against Biden/Harris who are the most anti-life presidential ticket ever, even supporting the horrors of late-term abortion and infanticide.”

The claim that Trump is “the most pro-life President that this nation has ever had” is undisputed in the anti-abortion community. More than George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, activists say, Trump has consistently and forcefully backed their policies and legislative priorities. It’s one thing to hear this from a lawmaker or grassroots organizer; the assertion carries more heft coming from a nun.

Sister Byrne could have left it there, but the contrast she drew between Trump and Biden — using equally definitive language, calling him “the most anti-life” presidential nominee ever, will raise more than a few eyebrows in the Catholic community.

It wasn’t accidental that her speech was allowed by an appearance from Lou Holtz, the famed Notre Dame football coach. He picked up right where Sister Byrne left off.

“One of the important reasons he has my trust is because nobody has been a stronger advocate for the unborn than President Trump,” Holtz said. “The Biden-Harris ticket is the most radically pro-abortion campaign in history. They and other politicians are ‘Catholics in Name Only’ and abandon innocent lives. President Trump protects those lives.”

I’ve covered abortion politics for a long, long time. “Catholics in Name Only” is something I’ve never heard before. And my guess is that the one-two punch of Holtz and Sister Byrne will make for a popular video package that will be circulating among Catholics before week’s end.

9:35 p.m. ET

Focus on the Family

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It turns out, there may be a better way to reach the “suburban housewives of America,” on whom Trump has focused recently, than Twitter.

If Tuesday night’s GOP convention messaging was targeted toward energizing a loyal bloc of supporters, the religious right, Wednesday’s programming aimed to stop the bleeding with arguably the most important demographic in this election: suburban women.

Rather than rely on scare tactics to woo these voters, as the president is wont to do, Republicans deployed a series of women who attempted to connect on an intimate, emotional level with these voters.

There was Tera Myers, a mom who shared the story of learning that she was pregnant with a child who had Down Syndrome and encouraged by her doctor to terminate the pregnancy. “I knew my baby was a human being created by God and that made him worthy of life,” Myers said. “I am thankful that President Trump values the life of the unborn.”

There was Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, telling of her agonizing decision to undergo a preventative mastectomy — and how “days later, as I recovered, my phone rang. It was President Trump, calling to check on me. I was blown away.” She also told of the president’s interest in her family: “When I started working for President Trump, my husband and I became pregnant with our first child, I would see President Trump at rallies. He would routinely ask me how my baby was doing.”

There was the second lady, Karen Pence, who drew attention to the “military spouses” — more precisely, military wives — who “experience frequent moves, job changes, periods of being a single parent while their loved one is deployed, all while exhibiting pride, strength, and determination and being a part of something bigger than themselves.”

The second lady also celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the the 19th Amendment and what it means to her as a mother: “Because of heroes like Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone, women today, like our daughters, Audrey and Charlotte, and future generations, will have their voices heard and their votes count.”

Finally, capping off this first-hour thematic blitz, there was Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, who told of how “Trump helped me shatter a barrier in the world of politics by empowering me to manage his campaign to its successful conclusion.”

Recalling how she was” raised in a household of all women” who were “self-reliant and resilient,” Conway tipped her cap to the mothers, particularly the single mothers, “who nurture us, who shape us, and who believe in us.” Conway made a final point that hasn’t been mentioned much, if at all, during the convention: that Trump has taken a special interest in combatting opioid addiction.

It’s unclear how effective this messaging will be. But it’s perfectly clear who it’s aimed at

9:05 p.m. ET

What’s in a Name?

I believe we have a first at the 2020 Republican convention: a featured speaker who did not utter the name of the president.

Dan Crenshaw, a freshman Republican congressman from Texas, gave a fine speech paying tribute to the “heroes” in our midst — the theme of Night 3. Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL who was injured during his third deployment in Afghanistan, told the story of a fallen comrade. He heralded the parents educating their kids at home. He saluted the nurses working around the clock to help Covid-19 patients.

The one “hero” Crenshaw didn’t name — or even make reference to — was Donald Trump.

I’m not sure if that omission was deliberate. But at a convention that has been defined by rhetorical presence of the president, it was conspicuous.

Women in power

The lineup Wednesday was dominated by female voices: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, among others.

If portions of Tuesday’s programming — the pardon of a black ex-convict, the naturalization ceremony of five people of color — were meant to combat the narrative of Trump being a racist, then the heavy presence of conservative women on Wednesday suggested an effort to neutralize allegations of presidential sexism and misogyny.

Youth movement

At the halfway point, this convention hadn’t featured a whole lot of speeches from elected officials. What’s particularly notable is that Republicans have made scarce efforts to promote their up-and-coming crop of future party leaders. That will change Wednesday night.

A host of 40-and-under Republican officeholders will take the stage on night three, including Stefanik, Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, New York Rep. Lee Zeldin. Also featured was 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn, the Republican nominee for Congress in North Carolina’s 11th District.

How these and other young Republicans perform this week will give a good window into the quality of the party’s farm system, which will be tested in the post-Trump era.

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