President Obama roused Democrats on Wednesday with a progressive call to action, but his speech was also a hit with a narrow group of conservatives who have spent the last eight years opposing his agenda: The #NeverTrump movement.
For #NeverTrump Republicans — a small band of conservative writers, intellectuals, and former administration officials refusing to vote for Donald Trump — Obama’s speech provoked a striking mix of admiration for its upbeat patriotic themes, as well as despair over their own party’s failure to offer the same.
“Take about five paragraphs out of that Obama speech and it could have been a Reagan speech,” John Podhoretz, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, tweeted. “Trust me. I know.”
This didn’t happen by accident. Obama contrasted Reagan’s invocation of America as John Winthrop’s “shining city upon a hill” with Trump’s vision of a “divided crime scene that only he can fix.” His speech was filled with moist-eyed tributes to the nation’s founding beliefs and the fundamental decency of its people.
For Liz Mair, a Republican consultant who has spent much of the last year coordinating efforts to stop Trump, the president’s defense of limited government and democratic values tugged at her heartstrings even as she and other conservatives grumbled that he failed to govern by those ideals.
“#NeverTrump believes America is great, because America is an idea — and a very, very good one,” Mair told NBC News. “Trump believes Americans are great, but that America sucks and that the idea of America is inherently flawed.”
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It wasn’t just Obama’s liberal use of conservative imagery that touched those on the right, though. The speech was carefully crafted to bring Trump skeptics into the fold with malice toward none and charity for all, to paraphrase another Republican president.
Rather than chastising the right for enabling Trump’s rise, something Obama has done in the past, he argued that Trump’s message “wasn’t particularly Republican — and it sure wasn’t conservative.” The goal was to give Republicans an opening to join him in condemning Trump as an outlier in an otherwise proud party.
In critiquing the other party’s nominee, Obama also avoided litigating typical partisan divides over issues like government spending, gun rights, and abortion. Instead, he described Trump as a “homegrown demagogue” whose chief sins were ignorance, hatred, and contempt for American democracy — none of which he tied to any deeper philosophical flaw embedded in conservatism.
As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it, the speech’s nonpartisan thrust was designed “to make Republican elites feel sickened (as they should be) by what their party has nominated.”
It seemed to have the desired effect.
“Thank God the President had the grace on that stage last night to point out that Donald Trump is neither a Republican nor a conservative,” Resurgent editor Erick Erickson, a fierce critic of Obama and Trump alike, wrote the next day. “I am glad that even the President is not willing to tar and feather my party with Trump, despite my party’s willingness to commit political suicide.”
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Tony Fratto, a former communications aide to President George W. Bush, tweeted that Obama deserved special credit for absolving conservatives, because he "has every incentive to say the opposite." Another speech might have portrayed Trump as the natural endpoint of a GOP in thrall to extremism in an effort to drag down Republican candidates around the country. This is the approach Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, to name one prominent example, has taken all year.
Obama’s message was reinforced by a video entitled “Solemn Responsibility.” Broadcast earlier in the night, it showed prominent Republicans, most notably 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, describing Trump as dangerously unfit to serve as commander-in-chief. The tone was notably respectful: Rather than mock the GOP as a party in chaos, it portrayed figures like Romney and Sen. Lindsey Graham as patriots concerned about America’s future. Their remarks were bracketed by quotes from past presidents, including Republicans like Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower.
Max Boot, a national security adviser to Republican candidates who was featured in the film, tweeted that Obama was “embracing #NeverTrump Republicans and independents.”
“I wasn't an Obama voter but he makes you feel good about being an American,” Boot said. “Trump makes me ashamed.”
Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson, a leading Trump critic, was skeptical whether Obama's olive branch was sincere, but he saw it as a canny maneuver either way.
"You don't have to adopt Obama's ideology to see he's making a smart political move," he said. "He's opening a channel to Republicans not in the Donald Trump camp by saying, 'Hey, it's okay, I recognize the goodness of some of the things you people have done.'"
To David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Obama’s rhetorical approach hearkened back to President Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign against Democrat George McGovern, another nominee who divided his party.
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Nixon told voters in his own convention speech that McGovern “rejected many of the great principles of the Democratic Party” and urged disaffected Democrats to join “a new American majority bound together by our common ideals.”
The speech worked: Nixon won 49 states. But 2016 is not 1972. The parties have become far more polarized, with fewer crossover votes up for grabs. While Obama’s speech was unambiguously a hit with Republicans who feel out of step with their party, it’s unclear if there’s enough of them to make this an avenue worth pursuing on Hillary Clinton’s behalf. After all, the same Republicans who cheered Obama’s speech were unable to convince their own party not to nominate Trump, and their criticism has not prevented him from surging to a lead over Clinton in several polls taken after the GOP convention.
Brad Blakeman, a former aide to President George W. Bush, saw Obama’s approach as a misstep. While elites might cheer his speech for its optimism, the more pessimistic vision described by Trump is more in line with rank-and-file voters, who polls show are overwhelmingly convinced the country is on the wrong track.
“Anyone Republican or Democrat who underestimates Trump does not get what's going on in America,” Blakeman told NBC News. “They want change bad and Trump is speaking their language.”
Mair, the #NeverTrump Republican strategist, was also not so sure. While she conceded the vast majority of Republicans would fall in line behind Trump, she pointed out that he’s struggled all year to consolidate undecided voters who previous Republican nominees could count on more easily. Even a small gain for Democrats from disaffected Republicans — one or two points — could swing the election, and Mair predicted Obama would attract some with his speech, assuming Clinton followed through with a solid performance.
At the very least, it couldn’t hurt to try. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Mair said.