The Democratic Convention: Mission Partly Accomplished

By Michael Barone

July 29, 2016 6 min read

It was a variant on a traditional convention for a party seeking a third straight term in the White House, attempting to overcome an apparent post-convention bounce for the opposition's candidate: shades of 1988 or 2000 or 2008. Usually it starts with a valedictory speech by the incumbent president, followed by celebration of the new nominee and ending with a rousing acceptance speech.

This year's Democratic convention in Philadelphia was different, because circumstances were different. Monday was about unifying the party, Tuesday about humanizing the nominee, Wednesday about disqualifying the opponent, and Thursday had sure-to-be-overlooked minor events leading to Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech.

Unifying the party is necessary because in a president's second term his party's wingers (left-wing Democrats, right-wing Republicans) usually get restive. They take his achievements for granted, rue his errors and yearn for roads not taken.

Sometimes unifying the party seems easy. Conservative Republicans were unmiffed after seven years of Ronald Reagan. Left-wing dissatisfaction with Clintonian triangulation became apparent only when Ralph Nader votes were counted in November — and December — 2000. The tea party rebellion only broke out after George W. Bush left office.

This year Bernie Sanders contested the primaries to the end and Sanders supporters arrived angry in Philadelphia. They booed the invocation and multiple speakers on Monday, trashed the media pavilion on Tuesday, rioted at perimeter fences on Wednesday.

Sanders dutifully recited the litany of party unity and, not unreasonably, claimed credit for the left-wing platform and issue positions acquiesced in by Hillary Clinton. But it's not clear that all the young people who voted 3-1 for him in the primaries will vote for Clinton — or bother voting at all. Mission not fully accomplished.

Humanizing a candidate isn't hard with nominees who are immensely likeable (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton) or historically iconic (Barack Obama). It takes some doing for others. Bill Clinton, assigned the tough task of supplying Barack Obama's re-election rationale in 2012, got this assignment this year.

In charming conversational style, the 42nd president told how he wooed his wife and how she has always worked doggedly as a "change maker." Like Michelle Obama, he underlined Hillary Clinton's two undoubted strengths.

She has more direct White House and foreign policy experience than most nominees (though claims she's the most qualified candidate ever will rankle admirers of John Quincy Adams). And she perseveres in her work despite setbacks and embarrassments (though, as Donald Trump said, "he left out the most interesting chapter"). Mission partly accomplished.

Disqualifying the opponent was the main work of Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Tim Kaine Wednesday night. Donald Trump is a target-rich environment, and they went to work with gusto. No nominee has "known less and been less prepared," Biden said. He's a "dangerous demagogue," said the much richer billionaire Bloomberg. Kaine contributed a charmingly goofy, geeky imitation of The Donald's oratorical style.

These attacks were aimed at college-graduate whites, who have already been fleeing Trump. They're probably less persuasive to whites who did not go to college, who have been trending his way. Mission partly accomplished.

Barack Obama embodied the tension for any party seeking a third presidential term: The incumbent wants to validate his achievements, and the nominee wants to focus on unsolved problems. Usually the incumbent speaks Monday, handing off the baton. But Obama was needed Wednesday, to add to the denunciations of Trump.

The president bragged about Obamacare and the Iran nuclear deal — issues other speakers have avoided, because they're unpopular. He didn't dwell on Team Clinton's favored topics — the minimum wage, equal pay, family leave — which poll well but probably swing few votes.

He bragged that the country is in good shape — an uphill argument when 70 percent think things are on the wrong track. He seemed to put Trump in bad company when he said "anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end." It'll be a rough transition if Trump wins. Mission partly accomplished.

The Clinton campaign strategy to re-assemble Barack Obama's 51 percent 2012 coalition, which has been complicated by Trump's disruptive appeal. Her acceptance speech started off with a deft invocation of the Founding Fathers, contrasting them with Donald Trump, and segued to personal anecdotes, then launched into a familiar if not stale laundry list of issue positions, plus some good jabs at Trump.

It was strongly delivered. But it's unclear whether it overcame the qualms of the two-thirds of voters who consider her dishonest and untrustworthy. Mission partly accomplished.

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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