Will conventions rise to occasion and unify?
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Less than a week after Presidents Obama and George W. Bush came together for a stirring memorial service in Dallas, the presidential convention season kicks off. What a stark contrast — a demonstration of unity in grief will be replaced by displays of hyperpartisanship. Unless, of course, this year is different.

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe 'Palmetto Promise': South Carolina will decide the race Alabama Senate contender hits Sessions in new ad: 'Hillary still ain't in jail' Worries grow as moderates split Democratic vote MORE are already locked in a contest over who will go down as the least popular, most divisive presidential nominee in history. The question before them is whether they can now rise to the occasion and prove to be unifying forces. It’s no easy task.

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Following a week when Americans cried out for unity, can they prove their ability to bridge disagreements? Can they show that they truly hear what those on the other side are saying? Or will they fall back to old habits?

Most Americans already think poorly of both Trump and Clinton; Trump has a 60 percent unfavorable rating, while Clinton clocks in at 55 percent. So it is actually in their best interests to reject the us-versus-them rhetoric of the typical convention.

Neither needs to convince Americans their opponent is bad; Americans already believe that. They need to convince voters they have some redeeming qualities — and given the current climate, it’s needed more than usual.

In Dallas, Obama said, “I'm here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.” Clinton and Trump will have the chance to prove him right — or wrong.

Sadly, there is not yet much reason to think that we will meet kinder, gentler candidates on the convention stages. Trump’s campaign has been defined by its negativity; Clinton’s strategy seems to be ensuring she’s just the lesser of two evils. Even on the issue of division they are divided, blaming the other for fomenting divisiveness.

Bush observed in his Dallas remarks, “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” This campaign season has provided more than enough bad examples. We don’t need to add more fuel to the fire.

Convention speechwriters should keep this in mind when preparing the candidates. What if Trump admitted his own bad examples and showed, for once, some humility? What if Clinton praised the good intentions of those who disagree with her and vowed to listen to them, rather than impugn them? 

These will likely be the most watched speeches of the campaign. If Trump wants Americans to believe he has the temperament to be president, he should spend less time calling the former secretary of State “crooked” and more time talking about the concerns of the long list of groups and individuals he has offended.

If Clinton wants to be more than “likable enough,” she has to open the door to Republicans and independents who are dissatisfied with Trump but have been trained for decades to distrust her. Tearing down the billionaire won’t be enough, nor will be her usual half-hearted invitation to join her campaign.

Expectations for the conventions and the acceptance speeches cannot be very high. Neither Clinton nor Trump can make a speech soar like Obama, nor connect with charm and authenticity like Bush. But they could defy expectations if the words after “I accept your nomination” were a little more unconventional by being a little less partisan. 

It may be unlikely, but it’s not impossible. After all, Clinton and Trump really should be able to identify with people who have other views: she was once a Republican, and he, not that long ago, a Democrat.

Isaacson is a speechwriter and executive communications professional in Washington, D.C. He previously served as chief speechwriter for the Republican National Committee.


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