The Elephants in the Room


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Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

It took three days for the Republican Party to lay out a comprehensive argument for re-electing President Trump.

After hours of dystopian warnings about “violent mobs” and testimonials to the empathic character of a president who is hardly known for his kind words, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a convention address acknowledging the crises facing the nation and making the case for why voters should support the president in this moment.

“Our economic recovery is on the ballot, law and order is on the ballot,” he told a largely maskless crowd at Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore on Wednesday evening. “It’s not so much whether America will be more conservative or more liberal, more Republican or more Democrat. The choice in this election is whether America remains America.”

A speech addressing the major issues upending American life right now — the pandemic and the protests over racial justice — should not be a shocking political maneuver. But for an administration that has seemed far happier to ignore reality, it was a notable departure from the norm.

Sure, Mr. Pence’s case was riddled with revisionist history. On the pandemic, he crafted a version of the early months in which Mr. Trump “marshaled the full resources of the federal government from the outset” — ignoring the president’s sustained effort to downplay the significance of the spreading virus and the continued lack of a cohesive federal response.

He implied that the “violence and chaos engulfing cities” is driven by left-wing, racial justice activists. But when he referred to recent shootings of protesters and police officers, he ignored the fact that the authorities have investigated the suspects’ possible ties with vigilante or far-right extremist groups.

And there were plenty of attacks on Joe Biden on Wednesday that ranged from misleading (that Mr. Biden wants to “end school choice” because he doesn’t support voucher programs) to outright false (that Mr. Biden wants to eliminate Mr. Trump’s tariffs on China, when he hasn’t stated a position).

Yet, Mr. Pence did address the protests, telling Americans that they don’t have to choose between supporting Black Americans and the police. He promised progress on a vaccine by the end of the year. And after days of convention speakers recasting a president who’s spent decades denigrating women and people of color as a “family man,” Mr. Pence sold his boss’s character with a pitch rooted in the version of the man Americans actually see.

“If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted, then he’s not your man,” Mr. Pence said. “When he has an opinion, he’s liable to share it. He’s certainly kept things interesting, but more importantly, he’s kept his word.”

This is the kind of rhetoric that might make Democrats nervous, if it wasn’t for the president himself. If we’ve learned anything over the past four years, it’s that the likelihood of Mr. Trump sticking to any message is extremely low.

Through most of this convention, not only have we failed to get a sense of what the president would do if re-elected — apart from “Make America Great Again, Again” — but it hasn’t even been clear that he’s willing to acknowledge the problems he’d be charged with managing.

With the notable exception of Mr. Pence’s speech, the convention we’ve seen so far has been much like the Trump campaign itself: running as if it’s still January. Mr. Trump is still battling against socialism, even though Democrats nominated a moderate, and he’s touting the economy as a continued strength, even though a pandemic tanked it.

There are some questionable assumptions baked into the Republicans’ campaign strategy. The president and his allies call for “law and order” to try to woo suburban voters, a crucial voting block. Yet, they are “law and order” — the highest in the land, in fact.

Even if suburbanites are as worried about “violent mobs” as Republicans seem to believe, why would they expect Mr. Trump to protect them, when the protests have been happening for months on his watch?

Throughout the week, even the smallest points have been stretched. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, movingly recounted her double mastectomy on Wednesday night, saying the president “stands by Americans with pre-existing conditions.”

“The same way President Trump has supported me, he supports you,” she said.

The Trump administration is currently trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, a move that could disqualify as many as 54 million Americans with pre-existing conditions from getting health insurance coverage.

Clearly, Mr. Trump and his campaign wish they were fighting a different campaign, in a different time.

In that, at least, they definitely have support. Who doesn’t wish to be living the pre-pandemic lives we had back in January?

But unlike the president, most Americans don’t have the luxury of keeping up that illusion.

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  • From our recap article on the front page of the newspaper: “The intense focus on the rioting amounted to an acknowledgment by Republicans that they must reframe the election. …”

  • Our news analysis: “The convention seems engineered to prove that the president is in control of the good and not responsible for the bad.”

  • The Trump campaign’s imperative to win back the suburbs has been vividly apparent each night of the convention.

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