JIM TANNER / REUTERS
After back-to-back Republican and Democratic conventions, the stage is set for a 100-day mad dash to the November presidential contest. There were telling differences between the two events.
To begin with, the conventions revealed the state of play within each party. Both Republicans and Democrats confronted insurgencies with dramatically different outcomes. On the Republican side, one of the insurgent candidates, Donald Trump, vanquished the establishment leaving the party in some disarray. Many national GOP leaders boycotted the convention and refused to endorse Trump.
Those who endorsed the victor did so either because they felt they had no choice or because they retained a vague hope that should he win, their congressional leaders would be able to limit the damage that might occur in an unrestrained Trump presidency. Adding to the fractiousness of the GOP’s situation, significant components of another insurgent group, prominent leaders of the religious right, also refused to endorse the nominee creating negative press with a walkout on the first day followed by a prime time rejection by Ted Cruz on day three.
The Democrats fared somewhat better since their establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, won. Because Clinton embraced a good number of her opponent’s progressive proposals, Bernie Sanders’ felt comfortable enough to give her a full-throated endorsement on the convention’s opening night. This display of unity appeared to be enough to mollify many of Sanders’ supporters, though a number of movement activists who had embraced the Sanders’ cause left the convention unsatisfied. Nevertheless, the Democrats concluded their four-day meeting with the appearance of greater unity than had been found at the GOP gathering.
There was another key difference between the two parties’ quadrennial events. Modern conventions have been largely stripped of their political functions, reducing them to over-produced infomercials. While Trump had promised a “blockbuster”, the Republican convention was a lack-luster affair bringing together a strange collection of minor “celebrities” and drew headlines for a series of unforced errors.
On the first day, there was a contentious rules fight leading to a mass walk-out. This opening sour note was later eclipsed by revelations that the initially well-reviewed speech by Trump’s wife had been, in part, plagiarized from a speech given by Michelle Obama, 8 years earlier. On the next night, Trump inexplicably decided to call into one of the networks to complain about an unrelated issue in the midst of an emotional speech by the mother of a victim of the embassy attack in Benghazi. Then, of course, there was the pay back speech by Ted Cruz. With most GOP luminaries not in attendance, the key Trump endorsement speeches were given by his children.
In contrast, the Democrats’ event was well produced and, despite moments of tension and controversy, was a nearly flawless affair. Clinton was able to receive validation and support from President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice-President Biden, her main opponent Senator Sanders, leading progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren, and most of the Democratic party’s Senators and Members of Congress. In addition, there was a host of major celebrities who performed at or addressed the event.
The Democrats were also able to dodge a few potentially disruptive bullets caused by concerns among Sanders’ supporters that the establishment had unfairly tipped the scales of the election in favor of Clinton. The Clinton team did this by agreeing with Sanders to form a commission to write new rules for party operations and for the next election and by forcing the party’s controversial chair to resign in advance of the convention.
The Sanders and Clinton campaigns did compromise on the party platform with Clinton accepting more progressive positions that had been put forward by Sanders. Nevertheless some movement activists who had embraced the Sanders’ campaign remained unsettled by concerns like: the absence of strong and clear opposition to unfair trade agreements; a commitment to no more war and universal health care for all; and a firmer position in defense of Palestinian rights. This resulted in a few demonstrations inside the convention and larger protests outside the hall. But while these efforts served as reminders of work that remains to be done, none ultimately disrupted the thematic orchestration of the Clinton convention.
A final major differences between the two conventions were in the themes they conveyed. Trumps’ insurgency has been predicated on the personality of Trump, hatred of all things Clinton, and the frustration, fear, and anger of those who have felt they are losing ground in today’s economy and changing world. They resent the “other”–Mexicans, Muslims, and groups whom they feel benefit from affirmative action programs. They fear crime, terrorism, loss of American power and prestige, and changes in the world and society that have feeling left out and adrift. Sensing this, Trump and his convention preyed on this anger and fear–focusing it on the person of Hillary Clinton.
The convention was an angry affair with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ranting about crime and Clinton, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie leading a shocking anti-Clinton floor chant of “lock her up”. For his part, Trump’s acceptance speech was well-crafted and well-delivered. But it was an anger-filled dark litany of the nation’s ills. It was a far-reaching indictment of all that is wrong with America with his solution being to elect him with the vague assurance that he alone knows how to get it right.
Clinton, on the other hand, developed a more positive message. She acknowledged that problems exist, to be sure, but she proposed specific fixes that involved bipartisan compromise, and communities working together with government to create and expand opportunities and improve the quality of life for all. It was an upbeat message conveyed not only by Clinton but by a stream of speakers–citizens from every walk of life who told of their struggles and how action had been to taken to address their needs.
As political and policy events, the Democrats’ convention had the clear advantage. Both parties spent considerable time in attacking the others’ nominee. But Democrats were better at telling their story, presenting their candidate and their programs, and creating optimism that they had made progress in the last 8 years and would continue to make positive change in the years to come.
If anything, the two conventions established was that just as the primary season has been raucous and contentious, the general election promises more of the same. It will be an election like no other.
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