Donald Trump isn't terribly good at delivering speeches. He tends to bounce between a rote recitation of the words in the teleprompter and wild message detours into controversial territory that grab headlines and totally distract from the message he and his team are hoping to push on any given day.
Which is what makes his speech on Tuesday in Pennsylvania all the more remarkable. This was Trump at the best I have seen him in months — a disciplined and effective messenger giving a speech that, to my ear, was one of his best.
Start from the top. The whole event, which featured a rotating cast of doctors-and-nurses-turned-Republican members of Congress, was aimed at highlighting how the Affordable Care Act had failed to live up to the promises Democrats made about it. (Tuesday was the first day for open enrollment in the federal health insurance marketplace for 2017.) The run-up to his speech was flawlessly executed for Trump to use Obamacare as an example of how Hillary Clinton represents more of the same sort of policies that Democratic politicians have been pushing for years. And, unlike so many times over the past few months, Trump actually stuck to the script.
“Obamacare is a catastrophe,” he said. “The president said if you like your plan you can keep your plan, if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor — which may go down as one of the great political lies of the century. Even the skeptical Democrats believed him and approved the legislation. … No one ever read … the 2,700-page bill.”
That's a great message for Trump. The ACA has long been viewed deeply negatively not only by Republicans but also by independents that Trump desperately needs. The chart below makes that point — using data from the Kaiser Family Foundation poll:
And the news last week that the average premium for someone in the federal marketplace would rise 25 percent in 2017 is just the sort of “they aren't telling you the truth, folks” moment that fits like a glove into Trump's messaging.
Trump then nicely transitioned into another very good issue for him in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan: trade. Here's his most effective riff on that subject:
Pennsylvania has lost almost 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs since NAFTA — a deal signed by Bill Clinton and supported by Hillary Clinton. The City of Philadelphia has lost more than one-third of its manufacturing jobs since China joined the World Trade Organization — another Bill and Hillary-backed disaster.
A Trump administration will renegotiate NAFTA … and stand up to foreign product dumping, currency manipulation and unfair subsidy behavior. We are going to bring manufacturing jobs, lots of jobs, back to Pennsylvania.
Critics will note Trump's proposal to bring “lots of jobs” back to Pennsylvania is decidedly nebulous. And, they'd be right. But campaigns aren't where the policy sausage gets made. For the average Rust-Belt-state voter, Trump's sentiment on trade hits home in a personal and powerful way.
Trump then ticked off easy-win issues for him in the eyes of Republican voters: Roll back Common Core education standards (conservatives hate the idea of the federal government dictating to them on how best to teach children), cut middle-class taxes (always a favorite!) and eliminate the defense sequester (a prospect sure to cheer the hearts of hawks within the GOP).
Trump ended — and, yes, one of the big pluses of the speech is he didn't go on and on and on — with his strongest point: He is fundamentally different from the people who have been elected president in the modern era.
“I am not a politician,” Trump said. "My only special interest is you, the American people. The guiding rule of the political class in Washington, D.C., is that they are looking out only for themselves. They will say anything, and do anything, to cling to their power and prestige at your expense. I’m running to change and reverse decades of failure, and to work with the American people to create generations of success.”
That is an absolutely perfect message for this I'm-mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-going-to-take-it-anymore electorate. People want change desperately. And almost no one believes Clinton represents that radical change — or anything close to it. Trump, in that passage above, puts his life outside of politics forward as incontrovertible evidence that he will walk the walk when it comes to bringing real change to the nation's capitol.
What struck me most about the speech — aside from how well written and delivered it was — was that it laid bare how simply Trump could have constructed a winning message in this campaign. Cast Clinton as the status quo. Make her own every policy and every controversy of the previous Clinton and Obama administrations. Use your own life as a the best possible evidence that true change can only come from without, that the political system needs a radical overhaul that only someone as well versed in business as yourself knows how to execute. And spend most of your days from Labor Day until Nov. 8 in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan hammering away at the idea that only you, to borrow a phrase, know how to make America great again.
Trump did all of those things in his speech Tuesday in King of Prussia. The problem for Republicans — and Trump — is that it's Nov. 1. More than 21 million people have already voted. Trump is less popular than, well, almost everything. And if he has demonstrated one character trait consistently in this presidential campaign, it's his inability to stay on any topic/message for very long.
Still, for someone who has given a dearth of genuinely effective speeches, Trump did just that.