by Cinzia Croce
Although Melania Trump’s convention speech was initially met with universal praise, the pundits quickly began to breathlessly report that potential First Lady Melania Trump’s speech contained two paragraphs that were strikingly similar to a speech current First Lady Michelle Obama delivered during the 2008 Democratic Party Convention. Steve Schmidt, former McCain campaign manager and current MSNBC contributor, declared “Now you have brought scandal to a potential First Lady.” Scandal? Plagiarizing Deval Patrick certainly did not impede Barack Obama from reaching the White House. It didn’t even hurt his reputation as a thoughtful wordsmith and orator. But we live in a world where if President Obama borrows lines, it is an unfortunate coincidence, but if anyone else does the same it is a crippling “scandal” — even when the person in question is not even seeking elective office.
It must be very difficult, if not impossible, to write an original speech for the wife of a candidate who cannot engage in a long discussion of policy proposals. That would be too reminiscent of Bill and Hillary’s “two for the price of one” approach, which was a complete failure. It turns out that the American public is not a fan of ‘co-presidencies’ or the sharing of any public office. But once policy is off the table, the topics a wife can touch upon are limited to praising her husband; speaking about his softer side that is hidden from the public; charity work, children, and values. Notions of passing along what we’ve worked for to the next generation, the value of hard work and keeping your word, and the importance of treating people with respect are common bromides that have filled countless political speeches. If pundits really cared to be honest in their criticism, they would acknowledge that we have been hearing the same basic political speech for the last several decades — talking about the greatness of America, the need to come together, providing opportunity to all Americans, and offering a better future to the next generation. In Democratic speeches, references to social justice are peppered throughout, while in Republican speeches the references are to Reagan and traditional values. Every election is “the most important election in a lifetime” that presents “a stark choice” to the voters. Our politicians have been reading from the same script for a very long time, and the first candidate who went off it, Donald Trump, is assailed every day by the media for being undisciplined.
The irony of this latest dust up is that the criticism is coming from a media that lives off of recycling the same tropes and narratives. Any controversy is immediately labeled as a “make or break” moment for the campaign that will reveal the true character of the candidate and whether he or she is ready to be president. Every failure to denounce a bad guy is turned into something about how “if the candidate cannot stand up to [villain of the week], how can he or she stand up to [ISIS/Putin/Iran/al-Qaeda]. Any time candidates struggle to get out their message out, the media refers to it as “struggling to find their voice.” Whenever a candidate’s message gains traction, they have “found their voice.” Popular politicians are “rock stars.” And finally, when a controversy is resolved in a manner that the media disapproves of, it is labeled a “missed opportunity.”
Whether or not Mrs. Trump’s borrowed lines were due to incompetence or sabotage is difficult to assess. The end result is a side by side comparison of Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Trump — and that’s not necessarily a negative for the Trump campaign. It has triggered a comparison between the attitude towards America the two women have verbalized. Mrs. Obama famously said that the first time she was proud of her country was when her husband encountered success on the presidential campaign trail; in contrast, Mrs. Trump, an immigrant, declared last night declared that American citizenship is “the greatest privilege on earth.” By emphasizing her patriotism, the Trump campaign has found a way for Mrs. Trump to connect with the GOP grassroots. In the past, beautiful and younger wives have not played well with traditional values Republican women. Fred Thompson’s presidential aspirations never got off the ground, in part, because of his young wife traveling with him in Iowa. While the media is busy recycling narratives to describe this latest controversy, the Trump campaign may have found an original way to turn a potential liability into an asset.