Did I step into a time machine and wake up in 1984?
“USA. USA. USA.”
“We are the greatest country on this planet,” said retired Marine Corps General John Allen.
American flags waving robustly in the convention hall. Speakers attacking Russian leaders. Sheriffs, veterans, wounded warriors, generals, families of slain cops. God and America.
No, no, this is not 1984. But this is where Ronald Reagan’s optimistic vision of America has taken us.
Never thought i’d be at a Democratic convention where Ronald Reagan is quoted, approvingly. Just happened.
— adam nagourney (@adamnagourney) July 29, 2016
Welcome to 2016, and one political party’s presidential nominee used Reagan as the inspiration at her convention. The other harkened back to the fearful days of the first “America First” movement in the shadow of Hitler’s rise, the walled-off, fair-trade America promised by Senator Smoot and Representative Hawley, and the hot-button racial rhetoric (if we judge by his approving tweets) of David Duke.
This is not an America I expected to be covering … or living in. It’s a world in which the optimistic legacies of Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush unite against the dark knight of the new American order, Donald Trump.
Yes, America is divided. Deeply divided. Its diversity is lauded by some, feared by others. Its rapid era of social change makes some joyful, others angry. Its no-limits gun culture is treasured by some, lamented by others. Its economic collapse of 2007-2008 has left many deeply distrustful of American institutions, from banks to big business to government.
The times have given us a new Republican Party, one that bears little resemblance to the Party of Reagan. As a historian, I wonder whether this is a one-election aberration (like Wendell Wilkie’s outsider takeover of the GOP in 1940) or a fundamental shift in America’s political lines.
The DNC is co-opting Republican tropes while maintaining Democratic ones because there is now only one political party for grown-ups.
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) July 29, 2016
Hearing speaker after speaker at Hillary Clinton’s convention refer to Ronald Reagan, I recalled reading a newspaper editorial early in the Reagan era headlined “Franklin Delano Reagan,” as a nod to Reagan’s frequent invocation of FDR. On the final night of the Democratic National Convention, we could have modified that headline this way: “Hillary Rodham Reagan.”
It’s morning in America. On the other side of the street.
Like Reagan, Clinton is not embracing the policy agenda of the other party. But like Reagan, she is seeking to unite her hard-core party loyalists and disaffected members of the other party. Like Reagan, who gave Democratic hawk Jeane Kirkpatrick a platform at the Republican National Convention in 1984 to reject the changes in the party she long had backed, Clinton found speakers who implored disillusioned Republicans to switch sides.
“This year, I will vote for a Democrat for the first time,” said Doug Elmets, a former Reagan administration staffer from California. Former Virginia GOP activist Jennifer Pierotti Lim tried to convince reluctant Republicans not just to stay home but to actively thwart Trump — “to not only oppose Donald Trump but to support Hillary Clinton.”
It’s about more than disqualifying Trump–it’s about making the Democratic Party acceptable and an easy fit for skittish Rs, independents
— Robert Costa (@costareports) July 29, 2016
Clinton’s acceptance speech was vintage Hillary Clinton, more like a Bill Clinton State of the Union speech with a list of dozens of policy priorities than a poetic paean to a shining city on a hill, as depicted by Reagan or the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo. But its “we’re all in it patriotism” and unabashed Northern Methodist morality made it a rhetorical antidote to Trump’s “only I can solve it” message.
Clinton just mentioned God in her speech. Trump did not in his entire acceptance speech. #justafact
— Vincent Harris (@VincentHarris) July 29, 2016
Leading up to Clinton’s speech were some of the most powerful speakers of the week, who skewered Trump with ridicule and passion, as they also made the case for Clinton.
Kareem Abdul-Jabaar introduced himself to America as fellow basketball superstar Michael Jordan. “I did that,” he said, “because I know Trump wouldn’t know difference.”
There was no such levity in the words of Khizr Khan, a proud Muslim American whose son Army Captain Humayun Khan died in a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2004.
“Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution?” Khizr Khan then brandishes his own copy of the document.
— Alex Roarty (@Alex_Roarty) July 29, 2016
The line about Trump that struck me most: “You have sacrificed nothing.”
— David Freddoso (@freddoso) July 29, 2016
Incredibly moving Khan speech. America’s greatness exemplified. #DemsInPhilly
— Mindy Finn (@mindyfinn) July 29, 2016
Clinton is going to have a tall order surpassing Khizr Khan.
— Ramesh Ponnuru (@RameshPonnuru) July 29, 2016
There was no way Clinton could bring more raw emotion to her speech than Khan. She didn’t try. She delivered a well-written speech effectively, if not effusively. It will be remembered more for its historical import than its historically important phrases.
Still, for the sake of the social media world in the year 2016, one zinger will go viral: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
Clinton came into her convention week as a flawed messenger of a divided party. She remains a flawed messenger, but the party has been unified, with the exception of a small band of Bernie boo-birds who will choose a Green Party candidate who this week compared Clinton’s Democrats to Hitler’s Nazis.
To a large swath of America, Clinton will never be acceptable, and Trump will be the lesser of two evils. Or the man who can save America.
— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) July 29, 2016
Trump’s campaign released a statement dismissing the speech as “a speech delivered from a fantasy universe, not the world we’re living in today.” Roger Ailes couldn’t have said it better. You’ll hear these talking points a lot in one of America’s two parallel political/media universes.
Beyond the spin is the bottom line. There is always a convention “bounce” in the polls. Trump, despite a poorly organized convention, got a bump as a result of the effective demonization of Clinton over four consecutive evenings. I predict that Clinton will surge in the polls, gaining the ground she lost and then some.
As American conventions give way to the Olympics, Clinton is likely to be in the lead. But the election remains in the hands of the Ronald Reagan optimists. The vision they choose in November will be the face of America in the decade ahead.
The dichotomy of America is apparent at the two national political conventions.
Hope vs. fear.
Love vs. anger.
Experience vs. political newcomers.
Diversity vs. shades of white.
Meryl Streep vs. Scott Baio.
Cagney + Lacey vs. The Apprentice.
Hiring vs. Firing.
Gracious loser (Bernie Sanders) vs. unrepentant enemy (Ted Cruz).
It Takes a Village vs. Burn the Village Down.
Even without saying a single word, the Democratic convention has won the battle of images. People look happier, even the Bernie boo-birds. People act happier, especially the elected officials. People seem happier to be speaking there.
And then there is the messaging.
The Republican convention did a very good job sowing doubts about Hillary Clinton, particularly on the subject of emails. It exposed her vulnerabilities as an imperfect messenger. But it missed an important opportunity to demonstrate to America that Donald Trump has any policy vision for America. Voters left that convention without any idea what Donald Trump would do on health care, taxes, budget priorities, trade, relations with China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, NATO, Mexico … the list goes on and on. The only clear policy prescription is that he will build a wall. And Mexico will pay for it.
Clinton’s convention has artfully followed a three-pronged strategy:
- Rebuild the battered reputation of the candidate, whose positive ratings fell below 30 percent in one post GOP-convention poll.
- Lay out a specific set of policies on family leave, equal pay, minimum wage, anti-terrorism, college tuition and loans, infrastructure, national defense strategy, small business development, job retraining, veterans’ care … the list goes on and on.
- Shatter Trump’s reputation one speech at a time. His lawsuits. His persistent sexism. His dissembling. His university. His nativism. His steaks. His admiration for dictators. His treatment of contractors. His crude insults. His outsourced neckties. His ego. “He has no clue about what makes America great,” said Vice President Joe Biden. “Actually he has no clue, period.” Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismissed Trump as a fraud: “I’m a New Yorker, and I know a con when I see one.” John Hutson, a retired admiral, said it most harshly: “I used to serve in the Navy with John McCain. I used to vote in the same party as John McCain. Donald, you’re not fit to polish John McCain’s boots!”
Wednesday night’s show was carefully calibrated and artfully executed. I identified 10 themes that were repeated over and over by speakers ranging from assassination survivor Gabby Giffords to President Obama. The themes almost always reflected an implicit (or expressed) contrast with Trump:
- Clinton is qualified — some, like Obama, called her the most qualified presidential candidate in history.
- Clinton is persistent. On health care, 9/11 first responders, foster children.
- Clinton is loyal.
- Clinton is tough. Just ask Obama about the 2008 primaries.
- Clinton has the temperament needed to be president.
- Clinton possesses humility. It’s not about her. It’s about solving problems.
- Clinton cares. Speaker after speaker gave personal examples, something almost completely lacking at the Republican convention.
- Trump is a bad person. That theme might have been overdone, but, hey, there are lots of examples.
- Trump bad businessman. Same as above.
- Trump is crazy. Well, that may not have been in the official convention script, but Mike Bloomberg went there when he ad libbed “let’s elect a sane, competent person.”
Clinton is a flawed candidate, with a four-decade track record of political controversies accompanying her long record of accomplishments. But, for a week at least, Democrats are Photoshopping out the blemishes. Former Defense Secretary and CIA chief Leon Panetta, who has publicly criticized President Obama’s security policies, rhapsodized over Clinton.
“She is smart. She is tough. She is principled. And she is ready,” he said.
Both Obama and Biden got personal in their endorsement speeches. “No matter how much people try to knock her down, she never, ever quits,” Obama said. The outgoing president’s optimistic rhetoric about America included shoutouts to Republican icons such as Teddy Roosevelt and evoked the “Morning in America” imagery of Ronald Reagan. In November, Obama said, “the choice isn’t even close.” While praising Clinton he warned about a “self-declared savior” and “home-grown demagogues.”
— Chuck Raasch (@craasch) July 28, 2016
The agony of many Republicans, from Bush loyalists to hard-core conservatives, speaks to the success of the Democratic speeches on Wednesday and the failure of Trump to inspire any positive vision for his supporters.
I disagree with the President on so much policy and his agenda, but appreciate the hope and optimism in this speech.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) July 28, 2016
I liked it better when Republicans were optimistic about America, believed in Free Trade, and were not enamored of Russia. Just me?
— Matt Lewis (@mattklewis) July 28, 2016
I liked the old days (pre 2016) when speeches @ GOP convention were inspiring & funny while those at Democrat version were fearful & boring
— John Ziegler (@Zigmanfreud) July 28, 2016
Michelle & Barack Obama speeches remind that Rs and Ds want(ed) same basic things, different prescriptions. Trump the outlier #DemsInPhilly
— Mindy Finn (@mindyfinn) July 28, 2016
Republicans have to abandon Trump. It’s not merely that he’s plumbed the depths of depravity; it’s also that he’s still plumbing every day.
— Tony Fratto (@TonyFratto) July 27, 2016
As Obama finished his oration, the convention hall’s audio system blared the song “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”
Democrats can only hope that is the case. There’s still a long time between now and November 8.
His voice is weaker. His right hand occasionally trembles. His stamina for 90-minute orations is no longer Castro-esque. (Then again, neither is Fidel’s.) But Bill Clinton showed Tuesday night that he can still inspire the Democratic party faithful and connect with average Americans beyond the Beltway bubble and cultural elites.
With his wife’s presidential candidacy endangered by the widespread perception that she is unlikable and untrustworthy, the 42nd president meticulously rebuilt the case for a President Hillary Clinton by reciting, slowly yet steadily, a string of anecdotes that wrote a very different biography of the woman he met at the law school library more than four decades ago.
Hillary Clinton has admitted, in an uncharacteristic moment of public self-reflection this year, that she’s not a natural politician or a fluid public speaker. Her husband, for all of his flaws that we all know all too well, is a natural. And his skills, diminished slightly with age but still daunting, were on display at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Many of Bill Clinton’s critics say his public life is all about Bill ~ sort of the rap against his former friend and longtime admirer Donald Trump. But for 40 minutes on the second night of the Democratic convention, Bill Clinton kept the focus on Hillary. And if the biography was a bit sanitized (none of the “bimbo eruptions”), it was heart-felt and detailed. Anecdote by anecdote, it built a case for a caring woman who gets things done.
Bill Clinton credited Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and the WSJ.
Does he know which convention he’s attending? Very, very smart. #DemsInPhilly
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) July 27, 2016
You always forget how effective Bill Clinton is until he speaks
— Jonathan Allen (@jonallendc) July 27, 2016
“I gotta get this right.” He didhttps://t.co/5CVtqtjJ8s
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) July 27, 2016
And as the speech reached its denouement, the former president faced head-on the “lock her up” iconography on display at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
To Bill Clinton, if not the Hillary skeptics, the Cleveland Clinton is bogus. Hillary Clinton has two images, her husband said: “One is real. The other is made up.”
“You nominated the real one,” Bill Clinton concluded, as if anyone was in doubt where he stood.
Clinton critics will be quick to dismiss his oration as another performance from a master showman, the man who allegedly could cry from one eye for the cameras. The hard-core Hillary doubters will never be sated or satisfied.
CNN: Bill Clinton humanizes Hillary
MSNBC: Bill Clinton humanizes Hillary
Fox News: Fornicator lies about murderess#DemsInPhilly
— Rex Huppke (@RexHuppke) July 27, 2016
One longtime Clinton fan, Donald Trump, has even changed his opinion of the man whose candidacy and foundation he once generously supported:
Trump tonight: Bill Clinton is “overrrated.”
Trump in 2014: Bill Clinton is “a terrific guy.”
Trump in 2013: Bill Clinton is “terrific.”
— Donny Ferguson (@DonnyFerguson) July 27, 2016
Overrated or terrific, Tuesday was a historic day. For the first time, a major political party in America nominated a woman as its candidate for president. Indeed, it was history. But, for the sake of the general election, Tuesday was more about her story.
Americans claim to want their politicians to be “authentic.” Even if the authenticity comes by way of Hollywood (like Ronald Reagan’s aw-shucks, cowboy hero persona) or Madison Avenue (Bill Clinton’s rural roots in “a place called Hope”).
That’s one of the things I’ve heard over and over from Donald Trump supporters. Some concede he’s a bigot, others admit he’s a bully and a blowhard, many acknowledge he’s a narcissist of the first order. But they like how he’s willing to “stick it” to “them.” The “them” is elites (however you choose to define them), minorities, foreigners, Muslims, the “politically correct,” even his fellow Republicans.
Hillary Clinton has a problem with this concept of being “real.” Many voters remain uncertain of who she is at her core, what she believes in, who she trusts, or if she can be trusted. Only 30 percent of Americans consider her honest and trustworthy, according to a pre-convention CNN poll. It’s imperative for Clinton to use her week in the national media spotlight to shift public perceptions of her, if she is to win what is now a close race with Trump.
On the first day of the convention, Team Clinton may have tried too hard. Message: she cares. Message: She’s passionate about people’s problems. Most of the speeches were too smooth and too predictable. (Exceptions: Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders. More on that later.)
“Every speech here feels vetted to death,” Adam Nagourney, Los Angeles bureau chief of the New York Times, wrote during a convention liveblog. “I’m sure they have an extensive speech reviewing-shop.”
The action on the convention podium was disciplined and carefully scripted, even if the crowd was raucous and often off-script. Somehow, the DNC managed to squeeze the intelligent ridicule out of Al Franken. Instead of coming off as clever, he came off as somebody reading a speech written by someone else, which it undoubtedly was.
The most unscripted moment of the event came when Franken and comedian Sarah Silverman were directed to waste time so that ’60s music legend Paul Simon could get comfortable at his piano. She filled the “dead time” with a pointed message to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd: “You’re being ridiculous.”
Franken, who became famous as a political commentator by roasting Rush Limbaugh as “a big, fat idiot,” looked momentarily stunned. Then the convention returned to script.
The most effective scripted moments came during First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech. In a speech praised by political analysts from both parties, she described her life in the White House and its impact on her family. In a gentle reminder that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, she noted that the 2016 election will determine “who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.” She also noted politely that you can’t solve complex policy problems in 140 characters.
“Michelle Obama tonight delivered one of the best speeches I have ever seen in my career in politics,” former George W. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon wrote on his Facebook page.
Obama was followed by a keynote address by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was predictable in her attacks on Trump and her “proud” support of Hillary.
(The password of the night was “proud.” Democrats are proud of Hillary.)
Warren’s address, which did not receive nearly the applause of Obama’s, served as a bridge to Bernie Sanders’ gracious speech endorsing Clinton. The Vermont senator spent 30 minutes making the case both for Clinton and against Trump, all the while thanking his supporters in the Democrats’ socialist, populist revolution. It was no concession speech. He conceded no ground. But he did advance the cause of party unity.
One Sanders speech is unlikely to mollify his hard-core supporters. Acrimony was evident everywhere on Monday. In state delegation meetings. On the steamy streets of Philadelphia. And in a convention hall that was packed (unlike Cleveland), but abnormally unresponsive to speakers’ calls for unity — at least until Obama and Sanders came along late in prime time.
“It was a rough day earlier on,” Senate Democratic Leader-in-Waiting Chuck Schumer admitted on NBC. But it could have been worse, he quickly added: “Compare this to Ted Cruz”
If this was your first time watching a national convention, you might think these public displays of division are bad news for Democrats’ hopes of winning. But for those of us who’ve seen Democratic schisms in the past, this was relatively mild. Past divisions have been deeper and far more fundamental. Take it from this Republican activist:
Let’s be honest. This is a hot mess, but they’re Democrats. They care about winning. They’re like that. By then end it’ll be a lovefest.
— Rick Wilson (@TheRickWilson) July 26, 2016
Team Hillary hopes that’s the case.
Donald Trump is the most disliked presidential nominee in the history of scientific polling. But most national polls still show him barely trailing in his unconventional outsider bid for the presidency. The combination of those two facts creates an uncomfortable reality for Hillary Clinton as she prepares for the first Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia since 1948. She has work to do.
Here are 10 things I think Clinton needs to accomplish in Philly to make her week a success.
1. Lower her negative ratings.
Clinton’s high unfavorable ratings would be lethal in a normal year. But this is not a normal year. True, she’s the most unpopular Democratic nominee in modern times. Her opponent, however, is even more widely loathed. Still, Trump is hanging tough in most national polls conducted the week of the Republican National Convention. In the next four days, Clinton has to convince at least a few of the anti-Trump, anti-Clinton undecided voters that she’s acceptable. Or, as Barack Obama said infamously in the 2008 New Hampshire primary debate, “likable enough.”
2. Connect with working-class whites.
That’s one of the reason she picked a running mate with a blue-collar family background, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. But she has to convince displaced white workers in the industrial heartland that she understands why they feel dispossessed and angry at the system. A tall order, but that’s what national conventions are for. (Right, Donald?)
3. Convince Democratic liberals to get on her bandwagon.
Clinton is doing better than Trump at winning back supporters of her primary opponent(s). But that’s a low bar. She needs 95 percent of Bernie Sanders’ supporters to back her, not just 80 percent. And if she can’t persuade them not to vote for Jill Stein, she needs to at least make sure they don’t vote for Trump. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (and the Russian hackers who released the scurrilous, embarrassing Democratic National Committee emails the weekend before the convention) didn’t do the nominee any favors. Eight years ago, I covered an event featuring “NObama” activists who had backed Clinton during their bitter primary battle. By the end of the week, they were on the Obama team.
4. Keep the convention on the issues and avoid personal attacks on Trump.
Undecided voters don’t need to hear jokes about Donald Trump’s combover or his gold-plated chairs. They don’t like Trump already. No need to remind them. Democrats would be better served by dissecting Trump on issues, from foreign policy and national defense and outsourcing jobs to tax cuts and family leave and stiffing small businesses. There’s plenty of meat there for Democrats to devour. And they can make the case that her judgment and temperament are more presidential than Trump’s. If we hear jokes about his hand size or bald spot, it’s a bad sign.
5. Increase her margin among Latinos — and the turnout.
For at least two decades, I’ve seen Latinos described as “the sleeping giant of American politics.” It’s a tiresome cliche, but it’s still being used because the turnout rate of Hispanic Americans remains significantly lower than African Americans, Asian Americans, and non-Hispanic whites. Clinton is crushing Trump among Democratic and independent Latinos. She has a huge lead among the wealthiest Latinos — about 50 percentage points, according to my analysis of Reuters presidential polling data. But 40 percent of this Republican-leaning group remains undecided. Clinton needs to convince them to vote for her, not to vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson or stay home. A Latino wave could drown Trump in Florida, Nevada, Colorado and even Arizona, making it all but impossible for him to win, even if he takes Pennsylvania and Ohio.
6. Match Barack Obama in the African American vote.
For the past two presidential elections, African American turnout has been higher than non-Hispanic white turnout. Many political journalists attribute that to the historic Obama candidacy. Can Clinton maintain that level of support and enthusiasm? Support: undoubtedly. Two state polls in Ohio and Pennsylvania showed Trump registered zero percent of the African American vote. Can’t do much worse than that. But Clinton needs to mobilize African Americans who are either enthusiastic about her agenda or scared of Donald Trump’s vision for America (or his backing among white supremacists like David Duke).
7. Appeal to young Americans.
The major party candidates have the oldest combined age of any nominees in American history. Young voters overwhelming reject Trump. But young Democrats overwhelming rejected Clinton for the even-older Bernie Sanders. So that means it’s not about age, but ideas and outlook. Clinton must describe her ideas that can improve the lives of the Millennial Generation. College-loan debt, equal pay for women, paid family leave and an improved environment for job creation would be good places to start.
8. Make the convention about the future and not the past.
Yes, yes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and Joe Biden will be speaking. But this convention is not about the glories of past Democratic victories. It’s about what’s yet to come. Donald Trump wants to return America to its past greatness.
Nostalgia is not a winning formula in an increasingly young, diverse America. Today’s 18-year-old voters were 2 years old when Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate and 14 when she stepped down as Secretary of State. Yes, old accomplishments are fine. But they are old. What will you do for us tomorrow?
9. Avoid a cheesesteak blunder.
As a native Philadelphian, I cringed when John Kerry, then running for president, ordered a cheesesteak with swiss cheese in 2004. That’s a cultural faux pas. If you’re trying to appeal to “average folks,” it’s best not to act like an out-of-touch politician. Please don’t play the theme to Rocky — or even talk about Apollo Creed and his son. It doesn’t fit. Authenticity matters. I know that’s going to be tough, but be yourself. Whatever that is.
10. No plagiarism.
Right, Michelle Obama?
>> Catch my daily analysis of ongoings at the Democratic convention, right here on RickDunhamBlog.com.