CLEVELAND — A shift from pure pro-trade principles in the Republican Party and an apparently plagiarized speech delivered by Melania Trump reflected the turmoil surrounding the GOP convention as it enters its third day.
The convention traditionally offers a showcase on the national stage for the platform’s guiding principles and its candidate’s vision. But policies were almost completely overshadowed, at least temporarily, on Tuesday as controversy continued to swirl around the prime-time speech delivered by presumptive nominee Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, which bore passages remarkably similar to those First Lady Michelle Obama used in a speech at the 2008 Democratic Party convention.
The controversy only added to the boisterous convention, which so far has melded the atmosphere of a political rally, a circus and a wrestling match. The issues at times got lost amid the hubbub, stirring further concern among industry officials about the party’s platform and proposed policies.
“I thought the whole Monday-night opening was an entry point into a new world. Americans today are pretty serious about politics and what is going to happen to our country,” said Rick Helfenbein, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “When you lead off with ‘Duck Dynasty’ and end up with a wired Rudy Giuliani and have poor Melania giving a [reported] copycat speech, it makes one wonder where the party is headed. The biggest loser of all was the mainstream Republican Party. It was completely off focus.”
Retailers and brands expressed disappointment over the Republican Party platform’s shift away from the more traditional GOP pro-trade vision to underlying principles rooted in skepticism about the benefits of free trade, leaving some officials concerned the trade agenda will slow down if Trump is elected.
The platform, adopted by delegates at the Quicken Loans Arena here, was a marked departure from the 2012 agenda adopted when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney secured the party’s nomination.
But GOP platform committee members also walked the tightrope they no doubt will be walking until the general election in November, trying to strike a balance between the party’s long-held core beliefs on trade and the anti-free-trade agenda espoused by Trump and adopted enthusiastically by his followers. Trump has vowed to renegotiate existing trade deals and withdraw the U.S. from the key 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership pact.
“We need better negotiated trade agreements that put America first,” the platform said, reflecting a softer version of what Trump has espoused. “When trade agreements have been carefully negotiated with friendly democracies, they have resulted in millions of new jobs here at home, supported by our exports. When those agreements do not adequately protect U.S. interests, U.S. sovereignty, or when they are violated with impunity, they must be rejected.”
Taking direct aim at the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, without naming the trade pact, the platform said: “Significant trade agreements should not be rushed or undertaken in a lame-duck Congress.”
“I think that line [that trade deals should not be undertaken in a lame-duck Congress] is clearly a dog whistle to opponents of TPP, and that by electing Donald Trump, you will stop TPP from being enacted,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation. “The platform committee was trying to appeal to those voters with that kind of rhetoric.
“This is just the latest in a long series of frustrations on trade that goes back 15 years,” French said. “There is almost no doubt among our members and among most economists, that open markets around the world benefit the United States and benefit our exporters and our consumers. It allows us to have a very diverse supply chain.”
French said there is “a little bit of mythmaking in Trump’s positions on trade,” noting that in trying to demonstrate that the administration of President Obama has been ineffective on trade, the candidate has to find things to criticize.
“In that regard, it [the platform] is trying to reconcile itself with traditional Republican views on trade and a free market with the Trumpian desire to find ways to establish a contrast on things like trade, and it has been anti-trade,” French said.
Helfenbein said: “The Republicans have always been stalwarts for free trade, and now it is more popular to bash trade. It gets a lot of media attention, and it gets people all fired up.
“They are making some Democrats look more pro-trade than the Republicans. It is really a shift in dynamics,” Helfenbein said.
“Obviously, platforms to a very large degree are reflective of the position and views of the party’s nominee,” said Augustine Tantillo, president and chief executive officer at the National Council of Textile Organizations. “Clearly Trump has made a major issue out of reversing traditional Republican views on trade.”
Tantillo said the rhetoric on trade on the campaign trail has been toned down in the platform on both sides.
“Clearly, I think what has evolved on the Republican side [in the platform] is a more realistic view of how the constraints associated with trade policy and international obligations. You can’t just get an instant divorce on things like NAFTA. It has to be thought through. We’ve become a very involved and entangled set of economic circumstances between Mexico, Canada and the U.S. That’s not saying Trump won’t do exactly what he said he was going to do. In the draft of the platform, they’ve given him room by being less intense and less specific. They’ve given him room to maneuver a little if he does get elected.”
That is, if he wants the wiggle room. Trump and his supporters so far haven’t seemed to want to, and his speech accepting the party’s nomination on Thursday is expected to be as dogmatic as his campaign has been. Delegates at the convention so far have been loud and boisterous, often booing Hillary Clinton’s name, while Trump surrogates repeated calling her “Crooked Hillary” and seized on any moment to show their patriotism and allegiance with Trump.
Protesters who draped flags and shouted were quickly silenced by delegates chanting “USA, USA, USA.” They seemed almost oblivious to the controversy over Melania Trump’s speech, which continued to roil on Tuesday. Media reaction on Twitter was swift to the controversy.
Michael Crowley, senior foreign affairs correspondent, Politico, tweeted a snarky response: “In hindsight it did seem odd when Melania talked about the challenges of being a black woman at Princeton.”
Nicholas Thompson, New Yorker digital editor, said: “Ironically, the plagiarized passages extol values that are undermined by plagiarism.”
Jonathan Chait, a writer for New York Magazine, also jabbed at it. “Melania accepts responsibility, will resign her position. Immediately after convention, Trump will go to Europe and select new First Lady,” he said.
Trump was uncharacteristically silent on the controversy, but Melania tweeted a statement from a campaign official: “In writing her beautiful speech, Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking. Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through her speech, which made it such a success.”
Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, denied that part of the speech was cribbed and blamed Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the controversy.