CLEVELAND — Tom Cotton’s breakfast-time speech to the Ohio Republican delegation hit the usual notes Monday morning, criticizing President Obama and cracking jokes about Hillary Clinton’s email .
But what made the few hundred Republicans gathered in this hotel banquet room stop checking their phones and pay close attention was a statement that, until recently, would have felt like a throwback to an earlier GOP era.
“The Republican Party is the party of law and order, and we always back the blue,” the Arkansas senator said, drawing cheers of approval from an audience that minutes before had seemed more interested in their breakfast than the lawmaker’s remarks.
It was the highlight of Cotton’s speech, not a surprise to many in Cleveland this week. At the Republican National Convention, no one is drawing louder approval than party leaders who praise the police and talk about the need for law and order.
The feeling is evident everywhere in the city, from the convention’s main stage (where many of the speakers have spoken glowingly about cops) to the security lines outside the convention hall, where party officials are making a point to tell the police officers who screen their bags to keep up the good work.
Cops are even unexpectedly taking a starring role at campaign rallies. During an event in a nearby community college auditorium Monday, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman asked two on-duty police officers to come on stage so he could shake their hands and thank them for their service.
Portman joked that the officers, who drew an extended standing ovation, didn’t know they’d be making a cameo. But he then turned serious, demanding that the recent killings of police officers must come to an end.
“This must stop, and we must all stand up,” Portman said.
The convention’s special emphasis on supporting the police comes on the heels of the shooting deaths of three police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Sunday, that police say were carried out by a man intending to kill law enforcement officials. The incident followed the killings earlier this month of five police officers in Dallas , again, police say, by a man who targeted the law enforcement officials.
Those killings, coupled with the recent fatal shootings of two black men by police officers in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, respectively, that have fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, have sparked a tense national conversation about the police and their role in the community.
It’s a debate that has sharply divided the country and, to some extent, the Republican and Democratic parties.
In Cleveland, there is no doubt which side the Republicans are on. And it’s reshaping the party’s rhetoric in a way not seen since the early ’90s, when the public rated crime as one of their top concerns and Republicans won campaigns with a tough-on-crime approach.
There was no more evidence of the return of that message than during former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s speech at the convention Monday night, when he said presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump needed to treat America like the former mayor treated New York City when he took office in the early ’90s. (In a nod to the law-and-order message, the theme for the first night of the RNC was appropriately named “Make America Safe Again.”)
The police, Giuliani said, don’t care about your race, gender, creed, or sexual orientation.
“When they come to save your life, they don’t ask if you’re black or white,” he said, his voice reaching a crescendo as the convention hall roared in approval. “They just come to save you.”
Whether the pro-police message is one the GOP and its candidates will use during this year’s campaign remains to be seen. In Cleveland, however, it’s already a winner.