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.