It’s true that there’s not a lot of substance in Trump’s program, but there wasn’t even any dwelling on what few grandiose promises he has offered in the place of policies: magically making NAFTA a better trade deal, “bringing jobs back” from China, and so on. Most of the speeches didn’t even bother to make the affirmative case for Trump, instead continuing the first night’s emphasis on attacking Hillary Clinton (with a break for an commercial for Trump Winery). To be sure, there are solid polling reasons for the convention to emphasize Clinton’s negatives — in the most recent Post-ABC News poll, 53 percent of Trump voters said they mainly “oppose Clinton” more than they “support Trump,” and Clinton’s favorability and trustworthy ratings are poor. But Chris Christie’s trial-by-mob-rule of Clinton had nothing to do with Americans’ economic concerns.
The lack of new ideas was particularly damning for the two most establishment speakers of the night: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.). McConnell only touched briefly on two specific policies — building the Keystone Pipeline and repealing Obamacare — both of which have been GOP orthodoxy for years now.
Ryan, for his part, projected an image of the GOP as a party “not just going through the motions,” responding to “men and women in both parties so clearly, so undeniably want a big change in direction for America, a clean break from a failed system.” Where would this break come? “It still comes down to a contest of ideas,” he said, “which is really good news, ladies and gentlemen, because when it’s about ideas that advantage goes to us.”
What ideas does Ryan think give the GOP the advantage in pushing for a clean break? “A reformed tax code that rewards free enterprise.” “A reformed health-care system that operates by free choice instead of by force.” “A way that shows poor Americans the world beyond liberal warehousing and check-writing.” All empty slogans that could have been in any speech at almost any Republican convention in the past 50 years.
Surprisingly, it was not Ryan or McConnell, but Donald Trump Jr. who had the most policy-heavy speech. But even his address was mostly slogans: “We’re going to put Americans first, all Americans, not a special class of crony elites at the top of the heap.” When he did get specific, it led to awkward contradictions, such as when he criticized Dodd-Frank regulations:
The other party gave us a regulatory state on steroids. Dodd-Frank was a thousand pages long and it’s already spun off 22,000 pages in regulations. Imagine trying to digest all that before you even open your doors for business. That doesn’t help consumers. What it does is destroy small business in favor of big businesses who can afford the vast number of lawyers and accountants needed to comply. Dodd-Frank is consumer protection for billionaires.
That sounded good on television, but Trump did not mention that the Republican platform supports replacing Dodd-Frank with its quasi-predecessor, Glass-Steagall — a law also heavy on government regulation.
By contrast, while the Democrats are not shying away from promising a third term, they are pushing forward with new ideas: free public college for millions of Americans, a $15 federal minimum wage and a public option for Obamacare. Agree with these policies or not, they are at least a clear evolution from what the party offered four or eight years ago, while Republicans remain stuck offering either old slogans or nothing at all.
It’s tempting for some, especially dissident Republicans, to imagine that this idea deficit is a consequence unique to Trump. If that were the case, McConnell and (especially) Ryan — both GOP establishment diehards long before they reluctantly supported Trump — would have had more specific new ideas to help Americans watching at home. That they didn’t suggests the policy drought is far worse than many Republicans want to admit.