x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Defining the message from the convention

Judging from the press coverage, the Republican Party convention's first night was only somewhat successful. Our columnist James Zogby reports live from Florida.

The original purposes of political conventions were to nominate candidates for president and vice-president and negotiate the party's policy platform, but their function now is to take advantage of media attention to define the party's candidate and message.

So judging from yesterday's press coverage, the Republican Party convention's first night on Tuesday was only somewhat successful. There were still too many nagging distractions and competing storylines - Isaac's damage, the dissatisfaction of Ron Paul's supporters, the party's platform and rival stories of the party's "rising stars", most of whom focused too much of their speeches on themselves and too little on the party's presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

This year's platform is an extraordinarily conservative document. The party's base is clearly pleased, calling it "the best platform ever". But John Boehner, the most powerful Republican in the US House of Representatives, suggested that the platform should be ignored the party's chairman tried to distance Romney from the document noting that "this is the party's platform, not Mitt Romney's".

The US media yesterday was filled with stories about these disagreements, with several papers featuring major articles pointing out that the 2012 party platform is much more hard-line conservative than even the Reagan platforms of the 1980's. All in all, this was not the narrative desired by the Romney campaign.

What the convention did do was provide a number of the party's "rising stars" the opportunity to introduce themselves to the party faithful. Should Romney lose, some of these Republicans see themselves as 2016 candidates. This was their audition.
Convention speakers also made a determined effort to focus on President Obama's "failures" - playing off of the president's inelegantly phrased "you didn't build it" quote. Signs reading "We built it" filled the hall.

The major success of Tuesday night was the prime-time speech given by Ann Romney, the nominee's wife. It was her first big speech, and therefore had some awkward and uncomfortable moments. But it had a few memorable lines, as well, and these have been quoted over and over, becoming the dominant story defining the convention's first night.

While some reviews were "over the top" calling Ann Romney's remarks "the best convention speech since Obama's 2004 keynote address" and "a game-changer" - careful folks, that was the line used to describe Sarah Palin's performance in 2008 - there was no doubt that she did what she was supposed to do and did it quite well.

Last night's convention programme had two goals: present a stinging critique of Mr Obama's foreign and national security policies and then listen to an address by the vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

John McCain took the podium to deliver a rather strident message attacking President Obama's foreign policy as weak and accusing him of betraying American values. Condoleeza Rice, the former US secretary of state, echoed some of these same sentiments. It was disconcerting that neither speaker appeared to understand or accept responsibility for the failures of previous wars they supported - and were now calling for new wars.

It is stunning that Ms Rice still receives rock star treatment. She adamantly denies any ambitions for higher office, but her speech seemed to indicate otherwise. Ms Rice's speech was well-received by the crowd, despite its lack of conservative red meat or Obama-bashing applause lines. Rather than bolstering the Romney message, she used her speech to try to shape the party's message.

There were some who had expressed concern that with Mr McCain, Ms Rice, and other big names in tonight's line-up, Paul Ryan might be eclipsed. That did not happen.

Favoured by the party faithful for his strong fiscal conservatism, Mr Ryan is still largely unknown by Democrats and independents and needs to introduce himself to the nation. He has been subjected to weeks of withering attacks charging that the budget he proposed as chairman of the budget committee of the US House of Representatives would have a profoundly negative effect on senior citizens.

Last night's speech by Mr Ryan was, therefore, quite important.

Unlike the 2016 aspirants, Mr Ryan didn't focus on himself. And he not only attacked President Obama, he also made a strong case for a Mitt Romney presidency. He delivered a powerful address, served as a good cheerleader for the cause and made it clear that in choosing him, Romney made a good choice.

Mr Ryan's speech received far and away the most enthusiastic reactions from the convention crowd to date. His delivery was powerful and earnest, as well as full of quips and meaningful anecdotes. His speech will likely be regarded as a very effective introduction that served its purpose of generating enthusiasm for the ticket. Fact-checkers and his opponents however, are likely to criticize some of his claims.

We'll see how Mr Ryan and tonight's other headliners fare in this morning's media and whether or not the Romney campaign was successful in taking control of the convention and defining their message, free of distractions.
Also worth noting: the Arab American Institute yesterday hosted a luncheon for the small group of Arab Americans who are delegates to the convention. John Sununu, a former White House chief of staff and governor of New Hampshire, addressed the gathering.

Mr Sununu, who chaired the convention's rule's committee, was also given the distinction of formally nominating Mr Romney as the party's presidential candidate. Since he was born in Cuba and is fluent in Spanish, he has also been representing the Romney campaign with Spanish media.

James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute (www.aaiusa.org and Twitter at @aaiusa).

Others in the Arab American contingent include: Congressmen Darrell Issa and Justin Amash; state Senator Joe Kyrillos, the GOP nominee for US Senate in New Jersey; David Ramadan, an eleced official from Virginia; Mayor Sam Abed from California; Sherine El-Abid, President of the N.J. Federation of Republican Women; and Justin Safie, Co-Chair of the Florida Romney Campaign.