CLEVELAND — Coming off of a raucous third night at the Republican convention that reflected an ongoing internal rift within the GOP, traditional Republicans are trying to find common ground with nominee Donald Trump — but they’re having a hard time doing it.
David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, talked to WWD about the controversial Trump campaign and the impact it has had on the Republican establishment and business community.
An indication of the internal battles that continue within the GOP is that French, who is a self-avowed Republican and veteran lobbyist for one of the largest trade and lobbying retail groups in Washington, D.C., appears to be the only retail lobbying presence on the ground in Cleveland.
He said the traditional Republican base is still at odds with the outsider candidacy of Trump, despite three days of a convention aimed at unifying the party and on the day Trump is set to be anointed as its standard-bearer.
“I am a Republican. As a Republican, I’m looking for a party that can unify itself, and move on and not do catastrophic damage to the brand of Republicanism and figure out how to make this work even if it’s awkward, uncomfortable and ugly,” French said. “Donald Trump is not a Republican. Donald Trump’s only brand is Trump. His objectives here are very different from my objectives. This week in Cleveland it was half Republicans and half Trumpians.
“They are trying to figure out how to get along together. In a way the Trump forces don’t necessarily care if the Republicans come with them. And the Republicans want to get this done with minimum damage to the party brand. So the two sides have different goals,” French added.
All eyes will be on Trump’s acceptance speech tonight, which may offer him one of the last chances on the national stage before thousands of delegates to bring the party together. He will be introduced by his daughter, Ivanka, the final of the Trump children to vouch for her father’s character.
There is speculation within Republican circles that Trump’s campaign is intentionally fanning the flames here at the convention to elevate his status as an outsider and resonate with supporters and voters who have been galvanized by his inflammatory rhetoric.
Here is French’s take on Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz’s speech Wednesday night, the vice presidential nominee Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and what French believes is a difficult road to the White House for Trump.
WWD: Did Mike Pence deliver on his speech and do Republicans think he will help balance the ticket?
David French: His speech was fairly workmanlike in its presentation of who he is. He is a reliable, fairly strong pro-business Republican, and a conservative.
I think his politics and his approach to politics are much more in line with the traditional Republican point of view. In that regard I’m optimistic that somebody like Mike Pence will be a pragmatic voice within the administration on a number of business priorities….I do think they [the Trump campaign] are trying to find new ways to build a bigger coalition.
Donald Trump is brand building. He is engaged in a very high level of marketing. While he is doing that marketing, somebody has got to run the government. That is what he is looking for with Mike Pence and I think Mike Pence is certainly very capable of delivering on that.
WWD: What did you think about Sen. Ted Cruz’s speech and his refusal to endorse Trump?
D.F.: I don’t think Ted Cruz is going to be invited to the Donald Trump Christmas party. I think it was a very predictable act by a politician who has traditionally not wasted an opportunity to stick a knife in the back of his competitor for the mantle of the true conservative leader of America.
WWD: Were you surprised by the Trump campaign’s decision to have Cruz speak, knowing there has been bad blood between the two candidates?
D.F.: I was a little surprised that he spoke, I was not surprised that he did not offer an endorsement.
I was in a very crowded reception room. Everybody stopped talking and watched. Everyone was interested in what Ted Cruz was doing or saying. This was the most highly anticipated moment of the convention so far. I’m still trying to diagnose both what Ted Cruz and Donald Trump hoped to accomplish by having this moment. Both had to know this was how it was going to go down.
On one level, Ted Cruz demonstrated he could be just as self-serving as possible. In another way, it was a disappointing moment for Republicans. I think Republicans were hoping they could figure out how to unify the party and Ted Cruz made it very clear there is another wing of the party that is never going to be unified.
WWD: Was it a misstep on the part of the Trump campaign?
D.F.: Do you want the really cynical view? That is part of Trump’s master plan. Trump is running against the establishment. In order for Trump to galvanize voters, he needs somebody to rail against. In a normal campaign you are going to rail against Hillary Clinton. He is trying to run a non-traditional campaign.
In some ways Donald Trump probably let Ted Cruz go up and do that as a dog whistle for blue-collar Democratic voters [to show] that he is opposed on all sides because his vision to make America great is so challenging — that Ted Cruz Republicans won’t ever get there and Hillary Clinton Democrats won’t ever get there, but he’s committed to making America great.
WWD: How does he go into the general election with a divided party? How is he going to pull the party together? Is it possible?
D.F.: I’ve been wrong with every prediction I’ve made about how this election is going to unfold.
WWD: It is a really unpredictable race with an outsider who is not welcomed by the establishment in the party. It is a divided party. Do you think ultimately he will fail in his quest for the White House?
D.F.: All of the normal metrics suggest he doesn’t have a chance. His fund-raising isn’t where it needs to be. His organizational strength isn’t where it needs to be. He lacks surrogate support. He is a one man band doing things in way that is very untraditional.
Yet some poll numbers suggest he is still close enough that this could be a very close race. Polls this far out are generally not helpful. I traditionally have not trusted polling until after Labor Day. It is not until then that the real money starts being spent and that the organizational strength demonstrates itself. It’s in the last eight weeks that you see what’s really going to happen in the race. But he [Trump] has confounded the experts in every step of the way, so I don’t know.