It’s showtime for Trump and GOP
As the GOP gathers in Cleveland, Alan and T.J. discuss what Donald Trump needs from the convention and what the convention needs from him.
Novak: The convention is the big show. It's designed to showcase the candidate and the candidate's party. The Republicans need Donald Trump to be a star in a positive sense, not a negative sense. Trump has to shine. He has to look presidential. He has to be a unifying force. Otherwise the story is going to be that the party hasn't rallied.
At this point, Trump looks as if he is in this race and is winning in some key battleground states. If he can pull out a star performance, we won't just have a show; we'll have a legitimately competitive race come fall.
Rooney: The convention is, as Ed Sullivan would have said, a "really big show," and Trump is the ultimate showman. Knowing that this convention already is wildly different from any other convention, and knowing that this year politically is wildly different from any other year, theoretically this convention sets up very well for Trump.
This is a home game for him in a metaphoric sense, because Trump became a household name by putting on productions. TV is how America knows him. Anything short of a miraculously spectacular home run will be a disappointment because the politics aren't necessarily working. He needs the show to distract from the fact that there are a lot of gaping holes in the convention - and the fact that people of substance and prominence in the Republican Party are staying away in droves.
Novak: Trump has the momentum going into this convention based on things that he has little to do with: Hillary Clinton's emails and the trust factor; the nation's civil unrest; strains between the police and the African American community. This is an opportunity for Trump to reclaim the narrative and make it positive. There is going to be a lot of opportunity to take shots at Clinton. It would be a wise strategy to minimize those at the convention.
The idea here is to make people think this guy can win, he can be presidential, and he can be president because he wants to make America great again. This convention can't be heavy on policy. It needs to be heavy on optimism. He has to make people believe that he can take the country out of the trough it feels it is in and rise up.
If he is successful in doing that, he gets the people who are going to work the party operations and the American voters.
Rooney: Except, too often, Trump can't get out of his own way. Conventions are a time when you allow thoughtful surrogates to frame the narrative of what will be his fall campaign. That's important. But Trump is hamstrung because a lot of the Republican Party's most powerful, thoughtful, and most respected surrogates are sitting this one out. They are not going to be in Cleveland; they are going to be doing laundry for four days and otherwise unavailable. That will make the job of convincing people in a way that will be sustaining, and sets them up for the fall, a lot more difficult.
Novak: The convention will be Trump's ultimate surrogate. It's an all-star show. We just don't know yet how many stars are coming. From a vision standpoint, they need to make "Make America Great Again" mean something - health care, taxes, foreign policy. They also need to be aware that any stuff going on outside the convention hall is going to be covered as much as what is going on inside. That stuff is likely to be very negative, and Trump has to rise above it. He doesn't need a Mayor Daley-like situation that the Democrats had in 1968.
No matter what, Trump needs to be positive. He will be tempted to get right into it and address his critics. I'd like to see him zoom past his critics by acknowledging what's going on around him, but also showing that he can move American forward and bring people together around a vision of a better country.
Rooney: Alan is right that it's imperative for Trump to recast himself as a serious candidate for the highest office in the land, because it's imperative for him to jump-start his fund-raising ability. With so many people sitting out the convention, they are also sitting on their checkbooks. While he may say "Politics is for politicians" and "I am different," there are certain things he can't get away from, like organizing battleground states and raising money to fuel that effort. Forget what comes out of his mouth, the biggest threat to the Republican Party is Trump's inability to raise money and do the turn-out-the-vote mechanics.
Novak: Trump comes into this convention with momentum, and he could be in the lead in all of the polls when it is over - not just the battleground polls but in the national polls. That is what is trending right now. If Trump delivers a strong performance that shows good judgment and hits the major buttons that are bothering most people - jobs, economic security, national security, terrorism, safety, and health care - he will look as if he can be the leader of the free world. So he goes in in an enviable situation. If he rises to the occasion, then the issues like enthusiasm among the volunteer base and people writing enthusiastically the checks to support his effort - all can happen.
Rooney: So the Republican Party, those in the hall in Cleveland and people tuning in, should expect to see a different Trump. One that is more presidential and less knee-jerk reactionary. But because none of the sane political people seem to like him, Trump will continue to be challenged to appeal to the middle - which won't make much of a battle in the battleground states.
Alan Novak and T.J. Rooney are principals of RooneyNovak Group Bipartisan Solutions and appear together regularly to discuss political issues and debate policy. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
This column first appeared in the Currents section of the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 17, 2016.