CLEVELAND — On the night Donald Trump officially became the nominee of the party of Abraham Lincoln, the GOP’s top leaders laid out their case for his election: Have you seen Hillary Clinton?
The Democratic nominee on Tuesday night, perhaps even more than Trump, was again the star of the convention even as the night was tentatively themed “Make America Work Again” and focused on the economy.
Few speakers addressed the topic of jobs, using their time on the podium to litigate a host of other issues against Clinton. The former secretary of state provided a desperately needed change of subject for a party bitterly divided over its own nominee’s competence, ethics, and policy acumen.
Two speakers, RNC co-chair Sharon Day and businesswoman Kimberlin Brown, accused Clinton of covering up sexual misconduct by President Bill Clinton. Dr. Ben Carson linked Hillary Clinton to the late “Rules for Radicals” author Saul Alinsky and, by extension, Lucifer, who Alinsky mentioned in his book. Donald Trump Jr. warned Clinton would “take your guns away” and said she “couldn’t pass a background check.”
In the best-received speech of the evening, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie didn't discuss the economy at all. He devoted his remarks to “prosecuting” Clinton’s foreign policy record point by point for the audience, who shouted “guilty!” at the individual charges.
“We cannot promote someone to commander-in-chief who has made the world a more violent and dangerous place with every bad judgment she has made,” Christie said.
He was interrupted four times by chants of “Lock her up!” that were among the loudest moments of the evening — louder than the cheers for Trump when his face appeared on the Jumbotron screen to address the audience.
While Christie’s speech played well for the crowd inside the Cleveland arena, at least one Republican senator thought the he went too far.
Other speakers weren't as well received, including the top Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Speaking before a mostly listless arena, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan made a case against Clinton and for conservative government with almost no mention of Trump’s own character or qualifications. They were joined by a number of speakers who tried to patch over the party’s considerable divisions by focusing almost exclusively on the Democratic alternative.
“I am here to tell you Hillary Clinton will say anything, do anything, and be anything to get elected president and we cannot allow it,” Senate Majority Leader McConnell said.
“They are offering a third Obama term brought to you by another Clinton -- and you’re supposed to be excited about that?” Ryan asked.
Ryan had initially refused to endorse Trump when he clinched the nomination, then relented after a brief courtship, then clashed with Trump again over his repeated claim a federal judge’s “Mexican heritage” made him too biased to oversee a lawsuit against him.
The speaker mentioned Trump by name just twice on Tuesday even as he declared “unity is everything” for the party in November. Every time he seemed like he was about to get into a discussion of Trump’s merits, he pivoted to attacking Clinton again or describing his own philosophy.
“This year’s surprises and dramatic turns could end in the finest possible way,” Ryan said. “When America elects…” Donald Trump? Nope: “…a conservative governing majority.”
McConnell’s argument mostly boiled down to two simple parts: 1) Clinton is a dishonest and corrupt politician. 2) Trump will sign Republican legislation.
“With Donald Trump in the White House, Senate Republicans will build on the work we've done and pass more bills into law than any Senate in years,” McConnell said.
Even discounting Trump’s personal behavior, his winning message was in many ways an explicit rejection of Ryan, who emerged as the party’s intellectual leader under President Obama. Ryan staked his career on a plan to gradually reduce entitlement spending to manage long-term debt. Trump dismissed changes to the same programs. Ryan promoted free trade, immigration reform, and minority outreach. Trump ran against trade deals, called for mass deportation, and fed white grievance throughout the race.
If Ryan is the intellectual leader of the Washington GOP establishment under Obama, McConnell is its political leader. He pioneered the policy of all-out obstruction against Obama that culminated in the Senate’s refusal to even consider Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. But McConnell has also clashed with Trump over his inflammatory rhetoric and frequent attacks against fellow Republicans.
For all this, McConnell was booed on Tuesday afternoon by a crowd who had come to view him as too accommodating compared to lawmakers like Senator Ted Cruz and too tied to special interests compared to figures like Trump.
How can these leaders reconcile their differences with Trump and his supporters? They can’t. It’s not just Ryan and McConnell who are split either. Earlier in the day, delegates jeered at the Ohio delegation as they declared their support for Governor John Kasich, who has refused to endorse Trump, citing his offensive remarks about Latinos and Muslims and his lack of policy acumen. The party faces fundamental divides over its direction that will take years to sort out regardless of who wins in November.
In the meantime, though, they can at least agree on their mutual disdain for Clinton and the consequences of a third straight White House term for the Democratic party.
“Voting for Hillary Clinton — or not voting — is simply not an option,” NRA lobbyist Chris Cox told the crowd, warning conservatives could lose the Supreme Court for “40 years” if she wins.