Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Paul Begala says first night of the RNC was dominated by rage and by questions that emerged later about plagiarized lines in Melania Trump's speech
He says it was a typical Trump production -- messy, undisciplined, angry
Conventions are an extension of the candidates they nominate. Ronald Reagan insisted on sunny, upbeat gatherings. Bill Clinton introduced himself to America as “The Man From Hope,” focusing on his humble childhood as the son of a widowed mother. And Barack Obama electrified the nation from Mile High Stadium, challenging us all to believe in “the audacity of hope.”
The first night of Donald Trump’s convention was as messy, undisciplined and undignified as Trump himself. If Donald Trump’s hairdo held a convention it would look like this.
By far the night’s best moment came from Mr. Trump’s remarkable wife, Melania. But even her gracious speech was tainted with a very Trumpian controversy. A side-by-side comparison of one paragraph shows it was lifted from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech. Let me be clear: I do not blame Mrs. Trump for this. She is a political neophyte. But her husband and his team should have been especially sensitive after The New York Times reported on Trump Institute’s plagiarism a few weeks ago.
The show began with a moment of chaos, as anti-Trump delegates briefly gummed up the works. Then, purporting to advance a theme of security, we heard from such heroes as one of the dudes from “Duck Dynasty,” a washed-up bit player from “Happy Days” and some soap opera guy I never heard of.
It was so bad that Trump himself counterprogrammed his own convention, calling in to Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox to distract his base voters from the train wreck.
To be sure, there were speeches from Republicans who actually know something about security, like the shouted remarks of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, rising star and Army veteran Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, but in the midst of all the c-list celebrities, their remarks proved instantly forgettable.
There were emotional speeches from heroes and families of the fallen – what former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt called “the weaponization of grief.”
Rather than security, the real theme of the night was anger. This is a seriously pissed-off party, folks. And they want you to know it. They’re angry about immigration. Angry about terrorism. Angry about Black Lives Matter. Angry about those damn kids who walk across their lawns.
The rage-fest was nearly rescued by Melania Trump. The charming and accomplished spouse of The Donald has not spoken often, but she brought a quiet grace to an otherwise divisive and nasty night. She even accomplished the impossible: keeping her loquacious husband down to a one-sentence introduction after he entered the stage like a WWE wrestler. But her herculean effort was smashed within hours, as eagle-eyed observers discovered that a passage about values in her speech was apparently plagiarized from Mrs. Obama.
Setting that controversy aside, would her speech move many voters to support Trump? I doubt it. I suspect even Mrs. Trump’s charm will be no match for her husband’s anti-woman record. Melania cannot charm away the hateful things her husband has said about other women.
Nor can Trump’s impressive life partner erase the anti-woman record of his political partner. Mike Pence was willing to shut down the entire federal government in order to de-fund Planned Parenthood; he signed a law requiring funerals for fetuses; he then became infamous for signing an anti-LGBT law in Indiana.
My guess is the election will turn less on how Trump treats the very impressive woman he married, and more on how he would treat the 157 million other women in America. Barack Obama carried the votes of American women in 2008 and 2012. It’s hard to imagine any of them switching to Trump after tonight’s evening of anger.
(Note: This article has been updated after questions were raised about Melania Trump’s speech.)