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Five takeaways from the third night of the RNC

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, wave at the Republican convention
Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, greet supporters at Ft. McHenry National Monument in Baltimore on the third night of the Republican National Convention.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

Outside events have a way of crashing even the most painstakingly crafted political productions.

As though horribly scripted, the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wis., set off in stark relief the debate over racism and law enforcement that has roiled the country and emerged as one of the sharpest divisions between Democrats and Republicans.

Law and order was already a planned theme of Wednesday night’s GOP convention. The upheaval in Wisconsin made the debate over what, exactly, that means all the more urgent and immediate.

Here are five takeaways from the third night of the Republican National Convention:

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A police shooting

After days of silence, Joe Biden released a video Wednesday saying he was sickened by the shooting of Jacob Blake. The Democratic nominee also condemned the violence that followed, including the burning of small businesses and a Wisconsin parole office.

Then came details of Kyle Rittenhouse’s arrest. The 17-year-old police groupie and supporter of President Trump was charged with shooting and killing two protesters and wounding a third Tuesday night in Kenosha.

With most of the convention speeches pre-recorded, there was no mention whatsoever. One speaker after another invoked riots, chaos and mayhem in the nation’s cities, and hailed Trump as the best friend police have ever had. It was left to Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke last, to weigh in.

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“President Trump and I will always support the right of Americans to peaceful protest,” he said, accepting his formal nomination to a second term. But, he went on, “the violence must stop whether in Minneapolis, Portland or Kenosha. Too many heroes have died defending our freedom to see Americans strike each other down. We will have law and order on the streets of this country for every American of every race and creed and color.”

He reiterated the administration’s commitment to “those who stand on the thin blue line” but said nothing of Rittenhouse — an alleged vigilante — or Blake, for that matter.

And with that the nation’s canyon-like political divide opened a little further.

The next four years

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Republicans have devoted much time to describing the apocalypse they envision under a Biden presidency.

“Joe Biden will not do what it takes to maintain order,” said Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, who continued the week’s string of prime-time family speeches. “To keep our children safe in our neighborhoods and in their schools. To restore our American way of life.”

There was far less discussion of what four more years would look like under President Trump, who has repeatedly tried and failed to enunciate much in the way of a substantive second-term agenda.

There have been hints, including hopes for a roaring economic comeback, a vaccine to stem the COVID-19 pandemic and an end to the war in Afghanistan.

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Trump may be saving the details for Thursday’s convention finale — he loves the big reveal — when he formally accepts the GOP nomination. Or he could go light on specifics, the way Biden did.

There are cavernous differences between the two on just about every issue imaginable: taxes, immigration, foreign policy and, not least, how to handle the medical crisis ravaging the country and its economy.

But more than any election in memory, the contest is in large part a vote on the candidates’ personal character and temperament, which is why each has devoted so much time at his convention to trashing not just the policies but also the personality of his rival.

That slashing approach may be the only thing Trump and Biden agree on.

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Lonely Joni Ernst

The presidential election isn’t all that’s happening Nov. 3.

There are 35 Senate seats up, along with 435 in the House. While Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) seems assured of continuing as House speaker, the Senate is very much in play, with about half a dozen or so contests likely to decide control.

Typically, the convention roster would be teeming with Senate contestants, eager for a slice of national limelight, the chance to rev up party activists, smile at the folks back home and pull in contributions from across the country.

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But Ernst, a freshman who faces a toss-up race in Iowa, is the only GOP Senate candidate to make the convention bill.

It’s a sign of how chary vulnerable Republicans are of being too closely linked to Trump — Gee, thanks for the invite but, um, the dog ate my speech! — as well as the unusually heavy roster of family members and others seemingly inserted in the lineup solely for their undying loyalty to the president.

Ernst used her five minutes to extol Trump’s trade and farm policies and attack Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, as a pair of tree-hugging, job-killing zealots.

“Folks,” she said, “this election is a choice between two very different paths. Freedom, prosperity and economic growth under a Trump-Pence administration. Or the Biden-Harris path. Paved by liberal coastal elites and radical environmentalists.”

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Doing Joe a solid

Sleepy Joe. Slow Joe.

No one has come right out and called Biden a doddering old man, but that’s been the clear implication as speakers used ageist epithets to describe the 77-year-old former vice president.

Others took a different tack Wednesday night, questioning the Democrat’s religious faith and suggesting, in the words of former football coach Lou Holtz, the devout Biden was “a Catholic in name only.”

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If elected, Biden would be the oldest American ever to assume the presidency. At 74, Trump is a mere three years younger, but it might as well be three decades, to hear his supporters tell it.

The put-down brings a snarky smile to the face of some Trump supporters and calls attention to one of the concerns voters have about the Democratic nominee (in case they need reminding).

But all the talk of senility — by Trump, among others — also makes it easier for Biden to dispel doubts about his mental and physical capacity by turning in performances like his well-received convention speech last week.

More important, those diminished expectations could help Biden when, and if, he faces Trump in a series of debates scheduled to begin next month.

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Cancel culture

The ratings are in, and they haven’t been boffo.

Viewership of both the Democratic and Republican conventions is down from four years ago, though the GOP enjoyed an uptick when First Lady Melania Trump delivered a norm-busting speech from the Rose Garden.

It is not as though voters are uninterested in this election. To the contrary, surveys show extraordinarily high levels of engagement and eagerness to vote, by Democrats and Republicans alike.

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In all likelihood partisans have seen enough to make up their minds, and hearing from speakers such as Second Lady Karen Pence and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany — who appeared Wednesday night — will sway very few.

The conventions, which used to choose the presidential nominees, have long been drained of just about any suspense or drama, becoming four-day political advertisements with all the spontaneity of an egg timer.

The exception, as always, is Trump himself. His speech Thursday night will probably be the biggest draw of the week, which will doubtless please the president — the nation’s ratings-obsessed TV-programmer-in-chief.


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