What’s at Stake in Donald Trump’s RNC Speech Tonight

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2016 Republican National Convention - Day 1
Feeling improvisational?Photo: Tasos Katopodis

A personal confession: I used to be a political speechwriter. And as fate would have it, I did not write for many naturally gifted speakers. One would read from a text but would systematically change certain words to make the grammar incorrect. Another would stare at the speech text intently while rambling incoherently, as colleagues who knew I had “written” the speech sneaked shocked looks at me.

So I have some sympathy for Donald Trump’s campaign staff, which almost certainly has no idea what Trump will do, with or without the words that scroll on the teleprompter tonight. Normally a presidential nominating acceptance speech is carefully prepared, vetted, focus-grouped, and rehearsed well in advance, and the candidate would no more ad lib than a priest would take liberties with the Words of Institution that consecrate bread and wine at the communion table. But this is not a normal politician or a normal convention.

Trump’s task tonight is as difficult and important as a 30-foot putt in a sudden-death playoff at a Grand Slam golf tournament. After three days of disorder and raw emotion, he needs to keep the delegates from frightening expressions of wild distemper. Perhaps the constant chants of “Lock her up!” every time Hillary Clinton’s name is uttered are okay for early-evening sessions when even the cable networks choose to feature their own bloviators instead of the voices from the podium. But it’s not the right atmosphere for the nominee’s speech on “Make America One Again” night.  Trump needs to make the case to restive Republicans why Ted Cruz is wrong in suggesting it’s okay to wander to other ballot lines in November so long as one is following her or his sovereign conscience. He needs to fill in some of the potholes he’s busily dug in past public appearances. And most of all, he needs to look and sound presidential, not like some former general plotting a coup d’état in an unstable developing country.

But before he can do any of that, Trump will have to take his speech seriously enough either to read it or memorize it. And deliberately or not, his track record is such that if he sticks to a script he may get rapturous reviews regardless of what he actually says.

At the Washington Post today, Paul Waldman warns against the tendency to “grade Donald Trump’s acceptance speech on a curve”:

In part because his events generally showcase a bizarre combination of tedium and brownshirt rally, on the few occasions where Trump has delivered a prepared speech, pundits acted as though he were an eight-year-old giving his first clarinet recital. It barely mattered what it actually contained; he was lauded for getting all the way through it without doing anything shocking or offensive. Look at how “disciplined” he’s become! He stuck to the script! There were no insults thrown at minority groups! This new Trump really looks presidential!

The temptation to socially promote Trump’s big speech will be all the more powerful because this convention has surely been the least disciplined in a long, long time in terms of speakers sticking to the script and the schedule. I’ve worked in the boiler room in six Democratic conventions, and I can count on three fingers the speakers who ever dared to blow off the ‘prompter or blow through the red lights indicating time is up. It’s happened so many times in Cleveland that I can’t count them at all.

But Waldman’s right: Getting through a speech without calamity is not a decent standard of performance for a presidential candidate unless you are Warren Harding in 1920 or FDR in 1932 or Ike in 1952 and the fundamentals guarantee you a huge victory no matter what you do. Presumably not even Donald Trump himself thinks this election will be that easy. So he really might want to show up and deliver the performance of his life tonight.  It’s an uphill slog to November, even if he does.