Democrats rolled out the big guns Wednesday night in Philadelphia: Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Tim Kaine warmed the crowd for what culminated in an emotional farewell by President Obama.
Before the network hour, they were preceded by a martial display on the stage and in video, as generals and captains, neoconservatives (even Charles Krauthammer!) and liberal interventionists, diplomats and intelligence officials paraded through to salute Hillary Clinton’s experience and steadiness or to indict Trump’s lack of knowledge and temperament. The tenor got so muscular, peaking with former CIA Director and former Defense Department head Leon Panetta, that it elicited chants of “no more war” from some delegates and observers.
Some observations from the evening:
1. A Contest of Insults, not Ideas
Donald Trump offers postures and not policies, attitude and not vision. What became clear last night was that Democrats will engage on his turf. Trump’s character was assaulted, what few ideas he’s offered were burlesqued. When he argues that NATO allies should pay their share of the burden, Democrats accuse him of “abandoning” the allies. When he says Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a strong leader, Democrats accuse him of having a "soft spot" for dictators.
Democrats want to contrast Trump's ignorance and thin skin with Clinton’s experience and steady hand. Obama put this plainly: This is “not a contest of ideas,” but rather a choice between “pessimism” and “resentment” against “optimism and ingenuity.” No one is more qualified than Hillary Clinton; no one less qualified than Donald Trump. The president said Trump is “not a plans guy,” he’s “not really a facts guy either.” He has "not a clue," summarized Joe Biden.
2. Continuity, Not Change
With President Obama literally “passing the baton” to Hillary Clinton – and Clinton choosing dramatically to join him on stage after he roused the audience to “keep it going” – the Clinton campaign clearly has chosen to present her candidacy as a continuation of the Obama era. Obama was lavishly praised, with Clinton anointed his successor.
With Obama clearly more popular than either Clinton or Trump, the reason for the strategy is clear. But with some two-thirds of Americans thinking the country is on the wrong track and looking for change, the campaign has chosen to argue for continuity: things are getting better, we’ve come a long way, we have much more to do, elect Clinton. Trump’s claim that “he is the change” isn’t contested, it is scorned for the risk that choosing someone so unfit for office entails.
3. Applaud the Energy of Sanders' Movement, but Not Its Argument
Each speaker gave a shout out to Bernie Sanders and his followers. President Obama urged those concerned about inequality and money in politics to be “as vocal and as organized and as persistent” as the Sanders supporters.
But the Sanders indictment – that the economy is rigged for the few and our politics corrupted by big money – was essentially discarded. Sanders depicts a battle by the people to take back our democracy from entrenched interests and big money, and make it work again. The Democrats last night celebrated progress, “all that we’ve achieved together.” No explanation was offered as to why the economy only works for the few other than in partisan terms – Republican misrule and partisan obstruction. The economy was ruined by Republican misrule, Obama saved us, and made real progress in the face of Republican obstruction.
There was no sense of a middle class that has been sinking for decades, of the massive failure of both parties at home and abroad. There was no argument for a course correction, no sense of rousing people to take on entrenched interests in both parties. Health care reform is celebrated with no mention that millions still go without medical care and millions more can’t afford the care they need. Only the gun lobby is singled out for its pernicious hold on Americans. Instead, we got a healthy dose of patriotic gore. America is the greatest nation; this will be an American century; "We own the finish line," as Biden put it.
The Democratic contrast with Republicans offered last night isn’t a populist indictment. Rather, Democrats are the party of inclusion as opposed to division, of optimism rather than pessimism, of progress rather than reaction. Clinton’s experience and intelligence is contrasted with Trump’s buffoonery and bombast. The populist indictment levied by Sanders and Warren is left out of the equation.
4. A Grand Show
Democrats know how to put on a convention. Wednesday once more presented an all-star revue compared to the painful amateur hours of the Trump gathering. Hollywood, Broadway, big brass and everyday people, videos depicting catastrophic climate change and tripping Trump with his own words – the Clinton campaign is putting on a tightly scripted, well-managed show that puts Trump’s slapdash convention to shame.
5. The Bloomberg Shiv
Biden and Obama gave moving and emotional speeches. Obama’s peroration left not many dry eyes in the place. But Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire’s billionaire, delivered the best takedown of Trump and a series of zingers: “I've built a business and I didn't start it with a million-dollar check from my father." "Trump says he wants to run the nation like he's run his business. God help us." "I'm a New Yorker, and New Yorkers know a con when we see one!" And my favorite: "Truth be told, the richest thing about Donald Trump is his hypocrisy."
Obama celebrated "all that we've achieved together" last night, and while "we've still got more work to do," argued that Hillary Clinton will "finish the job." This was a presentation of a confident leadership, offering no apology, asking for four or eight more years. We will see if Americans agree with that perspective.