If I had the time and the resources, I’d love to assemble a focus group and have them: (a) read the text of this 3,400-word speech delivered Wednesday in New York by a leading presidential candidate, then (b) gauge their reaction as they watch Donald Trump actually deliver it.
My guess: the group will find the video version of Trump abrasive – at times, hard to take.
But if they just read his words, they’d probably agree with much of what Trump had to say.
Such is the challenge for the Republicans’ nominee-in-waiting over the four-plus months.
As Trump showed in a speech billed to address foreign policy but actually veering in multiple directions (more on that in a moment), he can made a cogent argument (working off a teleprompter with some anonymous wordsmith providing clever references to Washington and Lincoln didn’t hurt).
Indeed, the candidate offered a glimpse as to what the first 100 days of a Trump Administration would look like (taken verbatim from the speech):
- Appoint judges who will uphold the Constitution.
- Change immigration rules to give unemployed Americans an opportunity to fill good-paying jobs.
- Stand up to countries that cheat on trade, of which there are many.
- Cancel rules and regulations that send jobs overseas.
- Lift restrictions on energy production.
- Repeal and replace job-killing Obamacare – it is a disaster.
- Pass massive tax reform to create millions of new jobs.
- Impose tough new ethics rules to restore dignity to the Office of Secretary of State.
So was that the news takeaway from Trump’s speech?
Of course not.
The foreign policy speech was, in large part, the speech Trump planned to give last week in New Hampshire, before the Orlando shooting – an all-out assault on Hillary Clinton’s character.
Here, Trump didn’t disappoint. For instance, this passage pertaining to the former First Couple’s lust for money:
“She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund – doing favors for oppressive regimes, and many others, in exchange for cash.
Then, when she left, she made $21.6 million giving speeches to Wall Street banks and other special interests – in less than 2 years – secret speeches that she does not want to reveal to the public.
Together, she and Bill made $153 million giving speeches to lobbyists, CEOs, and foreign governments in the years since 2001.”
However, Trump took matters a step too far when he called his fall opponent “a world-class liar.” In that regard, the speech was reminiscent of the one he gave in San Diego in late May, when a 10-minute detour into the judge presiding over the Trump University lawsuit drowned out the rest of the day’s comments.
Under the category of unsolicited advice, here are three ways that Trump can improve upon his Wednesday performance.
Stick To The Core Message. If I’m Trump, every speech moving forward repeats these two passages from the New York set of remarks:
“Everywhere I look, I see the possibilities of what our country could be. But we can’t solve any of these problems by relying on the politicians who created them.
We will never be able to fix a rigged system by counting on the same people who rigged it in the first place.
The insiders wrote the rules of the game to keep themselves in power and in the money.
That’s why we’re asking Bernie Sanders’ voters to join our movement: so together we can fix the system for all Americans. Importantly, this includes fixing all of our many disastrous trade deals.
Because it’s not just the political system that’s rigged. It’s the whole economy.
It’s rigged by big donors who want to keep down wages.
It’s rigged by big businesses who want to leave our country, fire our workers, and sell their products back into the U.S. with absolutely no consequences for them.
It’s rigged by bureaucrats who are trapping kids in failing schools.
It’s rigged against you, the American people.”
“Hillary Clinton’s message is old and tired. Her message is that things can’t change. My message is that things have to change, and that this is our one chance and maybe our only chance to do that change and if we don’t do it now, folks, I don’t know that we’ll ever ever have another chance. We have to have change, but real change, not Obama change.”
Trump can fill the rest of the speech with whatever policy he chooses, just so long as he begins and ends with these sentiments: (1) the political system’s broken and I’m here to fix it; (2) Hillary’s not only one of the system’s worst offenders, she’s the status quo.
2) Let A Super PAC Do The Punching. And so it turns out that, beneath the bluster, Trump has some solid ideas. Meanwhile, there’s an overabundance of material with which to Clinton-bash.
So let a super PAC pick up the slack, by handling the latter.
From Benghazi to Servergate, Goldman Sachs honoraria and the unseemly ties between the State Department and other Clinton get-rich schemes, Trump can easily spend the next four months in Hillary-bashing mode. It’ll also drown out any other kind of news he’s trying to make – like a first-term agenda, how he’d deal with ISIS, etc.
The recommendation here: monetize a super PAC at the soonest convenience and task it with broadcasting tales of Clinton misdeeds around the clock.
This would allow Trump to take the high road – if he’s genetically capable of doing. But at some point, his campaign has to calculate: how many voters can they turn again Clinton, and how many can they win over with ideas and enthusiasm?
Talk More About Himself. This may sound strange since the one thing Trump lacks is an ego. And, as is also true with Hillary Clinton, if you don’t know whom he is by now then you’ve been living under a rock or off the grid since the end of the Cold War.
The suggestion: define in clearer terms the life accomplishments of a developer – the vision, negotiating and leadership require to bring old structures back to life and new structures out of the ground. A good place to start: the Wollman Rink, an example of Trump cleaning up a governmental mess.
This was a challenge that Mitt Romney failed at in 2012 – the Obama campaign beat him to the punch, by casting his business experience in a negative light. Pro-Clinton super PACs are trying to do the same to Trump in 2016.
In no ways are these tweaks offered as a panacea to what’s ailed the Trump campaign the past few weeks. There are still serious questions as to the candidate’s discipline and whether the campaign will have the money and infrastructure necessary for a general election.
But the positive side of Wednesday’s speech: Trump has a message that can work.
We’ll see if his campaign puts it to work.