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OPINION

Trump botched his speech and no one will care

By JONATHAN BERNSTEIN | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: August 28, 2020

Nomination speeches at normal conventions are easy. Joe Biden even showed that nomination speeches given remotely during a pandemic aren’t that hard. Donald Trump flubbed his.

To be clear: I doubt it will make any difference at all to the November results. No one remembers these things very long, and even bad reviews, if that’s what Trump gets, will be rapidly forgotten.

That said, Trump is behind in the polls, and this was an opportunity to reach out beyond his strongest supporters. But there was nothing new here; even had it been well-written and well-delivered and well-staged, it was just a laundry list — a very long laundry list — of his usual lines.

Put it this way: If there were voters out there who were apt to support Trump for defeating the pandemic with a travel ban back in January, or who were willing to pretend along with him that the VA Choice bill signed into law by Barack Obama was one of Trump’s big accomplishments in office, they were already on board the Trump train.

But it was not the best version of that speech. It was one of the worst. Trump still hasn’t mastered the teleprompter, so he looks awkward while using it, delivers the lines in a dull monotone, and frequently botches words.

It’s hard to know for sure, but part of his problem appears to be that he doesn’t bother to practice. It often seems as though he’s seeing the text for the first time. That means he swallows applause lines, has difficulties with words, and loses contact with both the live and the video audience.

Toward the end, Trump just gave up on the applause lines completely, rushing through his callback to his 2016 speech about making America proud and rich and whatever again.

And then there’s the poetry part — the stuff speechwriters add that’s supposed to soar. Obama and Ronald Reagan made their careers out of bringing the poetry to life; Trump acts bored with it. Indeed, it’s surprising that his speechwriters still try.

Speaking of the writing; I agree with my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Tim O’Brien, who wrote on Twitter: “Stephen Miller is the worst speech writer in modern White House history — incapable of embracing any thoughts other than carnage, conflict and chaos. Completely devoid of aspiration, hope, community and generosity. A reflection of him and the man he works for.”

It’s not just Miller’s weakness. It’s also Trump’s. One reason convention speeches are easy is that the nominee can normally call on all the campaign professionals in the party. But Trump can’t. Many of them support Biden, including the groups of former staffers for John McCain and Mitt Romney who endorsed the Democratic nominee on Thursday.

One more thing on substance and delivery. Republicans, of course, didn’t put together a party platform this year, and Trump has struggled to explain what his second term agenda would be. I haven’t compared the text to the speech as delivered, but I did notice that several times when there was a line about something he planned to do in the second term, he appeared to ad-lib a claim that he had already started doing it or had already done it.

Of course, a lot of what Trump claimed for first-term accomplishments was massively exaggerated to begin with.

No, Trump didn’t totally rebuild a depleted military, even though he could argue he increased spending. No, he didn’t have to start from scratch and entirely defeat Islamic State, even though he could take credit for successfully continuing what Obama had started and legitimately hit the former president for not doing enough to check the original growth of the terrorist group. No, he didn’t build the greatest economy in the history of the world, even though he could take credit for keeping a long expansion going even longer — before the coronavirus hit, that is.

Again, none of this was new, and little of it seemed aimed at anyone other than his strongest supporters. Which is pretty much the story of his presidency, as far as public opinion goes: He is convinced that all he has to do is keep his die-hard voters with him, and he’ll be fine. That hasn’t worked in the approval polls, where overall he has been the least popular first-term president of the polling era. It didn’t work out at all well in the 2018 midterms. And so far, the polls indicate that it’s not working well in his re-election campaign.

That doesn’t mean he can’t win. But if he does, it seems highly unlikely it will be because of the convention, and certainly not because of his speech.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.