DANIEL VAUGHAN: Trump needs to stay on message at the GOP convention

If you take the last 100 days of the presidential campaign season and split them up into quarters, we’ve just entered the second quarter. The Democratic National Convention ran out the first quarter, and the Republican National Convention will kick off the second.

With under 75 days to go until the election, both parties must present their best case before the crunch time of the second half begins.

The central thread of the Democrats’ convention was simple: Donald Trump is terrible and needs to be removed from office. We’ve had an impeachment this year, and now it’s time for an election, and the only thing the Dems are running on is defeating Trump — with any Democrat.

Their anyone is Joe Biden, whose light-on-specifics convention made a case for a return to normalcy.

That Biden gave his first serious interview to a news outlet owned by the Walt Disney Company should tell you everything about his strategy: only softballs for Joe. As I’ve argued in the past, Trump needs to turn Biden’s strength into a weakness. At the upcoming GOP convention, Trump has an opportunity to do just that.

The Republican convention needs to hone in on two fronts. First, they need to build a positive case both on what they’ve done and what they plan moving forward. And second, they need to attack Biden to weaken his image as a calm person who is “ready on Day One” to be president.

Biden’s central assault on Trump came about halfway through his acceptance speech. According to a transcript from NPR, the former vice president said:

What we know about this president is that if he’s given four more years, he’ll be what he’s been for the last four years: A president who takes no responsibility. Refuses to lead. Blames others. Cozies up to dictators and fans the flames of hate and division. He’ll wake up every day believing that the job is all about him, never about you.

On this point, Trump needs to counter Democrats’ messaging directly. The most straightforward argument to make is on what most people consider a Biden strength: foreign policy.

Trump can draw many lines of difference between his first four years in office and the Obama–Biden era. With Iran violating all the parameters of the 2015 nuclear deal, Trump can point to how his foreign policy has strengthened the Middle East in ways unforeseen by the previous administration.

Under Trump, the United States has brokered peace and normalization deals between Israel and a host of countries, all of whom are working to counter an Iran that endangers the region. Trump can also point to his hard-line stance on China, which is necessary, especially in the face of the coronavirus. (And after all, the Obama–Biden strategy of playing nice with China got us nothing in return.)

And unlike Barack Obama, who got a Nobel Peace Price, Trump can remind Americans that he didn’t start any new wars, suffered no blunders with Syria, and decreased in the presence of ISIS in the Middle East.

Of course, the Trump administration has weak points in this area, too. But those pale in comparison to the mistakes made in just the first four years of the Obama administration, the Trump camp can argue.

On the domestic front, Trump can point out that one of the reasons he became president after Obama is because of the economy. Even in a pandemic, the polls show that Americans still trust Trump more on the economy — he leads Biden in that area 10 points, according to NBC News.

The president should draw distinctions here, pointing out that everyone remembers the Obama-era “recovery.” No one liked it, and the economy under Trump has remarkably improved.

Biden and Obama like to argue that they created the economy that has thrived under Trump. But there’s little proof anyone outside Democratic circles believes that point. Obama even seemed forced to acknowledge as much in his own Democrat convention speech, when he began his praise of Biden by saying:

Maybe you’re still not sure which candidate you’ll vote for — or whether you’ll vote at all. Maybe you’re tired of the direction we’re headed, but you can’t see a better path yet.

If the Obama economy was as strong as Democrats claimed, and people believed them, Hillary Clinton would have won in 2016.

When they weren’t on the ticket, the response to the Obama–Biden pitch was always brutal for their legacy: 2010, 2014, and 2016’s elections all led to Democrats being wiped out.

Obama is a personably likable president and politician. But when forced to defend his policies, Democrats have always fallen short. That’s one reason why Joe Biden, as he pitches a third term of Obama to the American people, is staying light on the specifics of what he’d do in office.

This last contrast to draw at the convention is simple: Trump needs to paint Biden’s incapability of leaving his basement as a weakness. If Biden can’t come out and take on a hard interview, he can’t claim readiness. If he wants to be the third term of Obama, he needs to answer the hard questions.

Trump needs to point out that Biden has never won primaries in the past. And that Obama himself wasn’t thrilled with a Biden run. The only reason Biden looked as formidable as he did at the end of the Democratic primary season was that the rest of the field was weak.

The most crucial point of all for Trump is this: he must stay on message. This convention is not a time for riffing and playing off an audience. People need to hear, understand, and be able to repeat the Trump pitch for 2020.

In 2016, Make America Great Again was a concise and straightforward way to make that pitch. Trump needs to drill down on this point again and make it clear to those watching.

It’s the second quarter of the election. There is no halftime, and crunch time looms. It’s time to hunker down and get down to the business of winning this race.