Convention Gives Trump A Chance To Explain How He'll Make America Great Again, Again

Aug 23, 2020
Originally published on August 24, 2020 11:36 am

The last three American presidents all won reelection, and they all knew voters would reward them, not for their accomplishments, but for their future plans.

Bill Clinton promised to build a "bridge to the 21st century" in 1996. George W. Bush offered safety and prosperity in 2004, built on conservative economic and national security policies. For Barack Obama in 2012, it was all about protecting the middle class as the country continued recovering from the Great Recession.

At this week's Republican National Convention, President Trump will get a chance to not only remind voters why he thinks Joe Biden would be a disaster in the White House, but also lay out his own vision for the future. So far, he hasn't been very specific about what it is.

Like most incumbents, the president's second-term agenda would be a continuation of his first, and Trump wants to rewind to the moment right before the pandemic began when he says the economy was the best in history.

Vice President Mike Pence has doubled down on the back to the future vision as he punctuates speeches with a familiar tagline: "We are going to make America great again, again."

When Trump does talk about it, it's always superlative. At a press conference earlier this month, he said, "If stupid people aren't elected next year, we're going to have one of the greatest years we've ever had."

"It is remarkable how little he has talked about what a second Trump term would look like," said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist. "It's a totally blank slate right now, which is really unusual for anyone running for president, let alone somebody who's been there for four years."

The Trump campaign insists that will change at the convention.

"The president certainly has a very powerful and forward-looking agenda for the future," said Steve Cortes, senior adviser for strategy with the Trump campaign. "And President Trump believes ... he has the track record to prove that he knows how to create the conditions for a soaring economy, particularly for working-class Americans."

The heart of the agenda, according to Cortes, is economic nationalism — rebuilding prosperity through more deregulation, more tax cuts and more "America first" trade deals.

But Cortes acknowledged that Trump doesn't always focus on those goals.

"He says a heck of a lot. So sure, at times he's made the case better than other times," he said. "As far as messaging, though, that's incumbent upon me and my colleagues at the campaign to do our job of messaging it to the American people and convincing the president to really stay on message."

It's not every day that a top campaign official admits his candidate is undisciplined, but that's just who Trump is. His economic agenda is mainly a mainstream conservative one, but it gets overshadowed by the rest of his rhetoric, including racist appeals around Confederate monuments, attacks on immigrants and low-income housing and an embrace of wacky conspiracy theories.

"He is defined in some ways by all of the stylistic critiques that people have of him personally: confrontations, saying whatever's on your mind, tweeting it at all times of the day," said Republican strategist Josh Holmes, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Holmes. "On the one hand, you don't get into the deeper policy issues that I think would have wide appeal across the American electorate. But on the other hand, he talks about whatever it is that he wants to talk about every day."

And that's for better or for worse, according to Holmes.

Marc Thiessen, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, disagrees and says Trump's core supporters have no trouble understanding what the vision is, and it's exactly what got him elected in 2016.

"His vision is to finally deliver for the forgotten Americans. The Democrats took them for granted and the Republicans ignored them, and Donald Trump came in and said, 'I'm going to fight for them,' " Thiessen said. "They said, 'Yeah, we're hurting in this trade war with China, and we're hurting because of the pandemic. He hasn't brought the jobs back, but he's fighting for us. And I get what he's doing, and we want to reelect him.' So he's got that loyal base because it's the first time they feel that anybody in Washington is speaking for them."

That fierce devotion explains one of the mysteries of this campaign: With more than 175,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic and unemployment above 10%, Trump's approval ratings have not collapsed.

Still, Trump's base alone isn't big enough to win the election, and this week is his chance to expand it, according to Conant.

"What he really needs to do is lay out a compelling agenda for the second term that can bring in people who don't like his tweets, don't like the way he's handled the pandemic, but do like what he's outlining he would do in a second term, especially compared to a more liberal vision coming from Joe Biden," he said.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Suppose the president is reelected. What is his vision for the next four years? He gets a chance to explain to voters this week at the Republican convention. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The last three American presidents all won reelection. And they all knew voters would reward them not for their accomplishments but for their future plans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

BILL CLINTON: ...To build that bridge to the 21st century.

GEORGE W BUSH: The presidential election is a contest for the future.

BARACK OBAMA: ...A choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.

LIASSON: President Trump hasn't been very specific about his vision for the future. But when he does talk about it, it's always superlative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If stupid people aren't elected next year, we're going to have one of the greatest years that we've ever had.

ALEX CONANT: It is remarkable how little he has talked about what a second Trump term would look like.

LIASSON: That's Alex Conant, a Republican strategist.

CONANT: It's a totally blank slate right now, which is really unusual for anyone running for president, let alone somebody who's been there for four years.

LIASSON: But starting tonight, that will no longer be the case, says Steve Cortes, senior adviser for strategy at the Trump campaign.

STEVE CORTES: The president certainly has a very powerful and forward-looking agenda for the future, I think, you know, one that will be unveiled in a lot of depth and with a lot of enthusiasm at the Republican National Convention. And President Trump believes that he has the track record to prove that he knows how to create the conditions for a soaring economy, particularly for working-class Americans.

LIASSON: The heart of the agenda, says Cortes, is economic nationalism - rebuilding prosperity through more deregulation, more tax cuts and more "America First" trade deals. But Cortes acknowledges that President Trump doesn't always focus on those goals.

CORTES: He says a heck of a lot. So sure, at times he's made the case better than at other times. But as far as messaging, though, that's incumbent upon me and my colleagues at the campaign to do our job of messaging it to the American people and convincing the president to really stay on message.

LIASSON: It's not every day that a top campaign official admits his candidate is undisciplined, but that's just who Donald Trump is. His mainstream conservative economic agenda gets overshadowed by the rest of his rhetoric, including racist appeals around Confederate monuments, attacks on low-income housing and immigrants and an embrace of wacky conspiracy theories.

JOSH HOLMES: He is defined in some ways by all of the stylistic critiques that people have of him personally - confrontations, saying whatever's on your mind - tweeting it at all times of the day.

LIASSON: Republican strategist Josh Holmes is a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

HOLMES: It's a double-edged sword. On one hand, you don't get into the deeper policy issues that I think would have wide appeal across the American electorate. But on the other hand, he talks about whatever it is that he wants to talk about every day.

LIASSON: For better or for worse - Holmes thinks Trump's behavior obscures his vision for the country. But former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen disagrees. He says Trump's core supporters have no trouble understanding what that vision is.

MARC THIESSEN: His vision is to finally deliver for the forgotten Americans. The Democrats took them for granted, and the Republicans ignored them. And Donald Trump came in and said, I'm going to fight for them. They said, yeah, we're hurting in this trade war with China, and we're hurting because the pandemic. He hasn't brought the jobs back, but he's fighting for us. And I get what he's doing, and we want to reelect him. So he's got that loyal base because they're - the first time they feel that anybody in Washington is speaking for them.

LIASSON: That fierce devotion explains one of the mysteries of this campaign - 170,000 deaths, 10% unemployment and Donald Trump's approval ratings have not collapsed. Still, Trump's base alone isn't big enough to win the election. Alex Conant says this week is the president's chance to expand it.

CONANT: What he really needs to do is lay out a compelling agenda for the second term that can bring in people who don't like his tweets, don't like the way he's handled the pandemic but do like what he's outlining he would do in a second term, especially compared to, you know, a more liberal vision coming from Joe Biden.

LIASSON: Trump's second-term agenda, like most incumbents, will be a continuation of his first. In this case, he wants to rewind to the moment right before the pandemic when, in Trump's telling, the economy was the best in U.S. history. It's a back-to-the-future approach with the Trump team literally doubling down on their original vision as Vice President Mike Pence likes to say...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: When we reelect President Donald Trump for four more years...

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

PENCE: ...We're going to Make America Great Again - again.

(CHEERING)

LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.