Sunday, July 31, 2016
Thoughts on the Democratic Convention
My attempts to view the Democratic Convention last week were limited by a family vacation. I ended up having to watch most of the speeches after the fact on Youtube. For some reason, my wife and teen-aged sons did not want to spend hours watching live speeches in the hotel. For that reason, I'm not going to go in day by day order like I did with the Republicans, but rather just discuss the individual speakers.
Of course, the Democrats had a scandal before the Convention even opened. DNC emails showed that the Party Chair and other staff members were biased in favor of Clinton. They worked to hurt Sanders' efforts during the campaign. To me this was a non-issue. Telling me the party bosses supported the establishment candidate during the primary campaign is a bit like saying that the grass is green. Of course they backed Clinton. They are not judges that have to remain ethically impartial. They try to maintain a minimal facade of neutrality. But anyone who did not know a year ago that Debbie Wasserman Schultz was backing Clinton just was not paying attention. Of course the issue was timed to be a distraction and to be one more kick in the nuts to the already angry Sanders supporters attending the Convention.
Overall, I found the speeches, as long as they remained vague, to be much more positive and uplifting than the Republican speeches. I was intrigued by Sen. Cory Booker's speech, which was not the normal political babble. He went into a discussion about how it was important that we not just tolerate one another but actually love one another. My first reaction was a cynical notion that this is just a liberal politician's way of justifying massive welfare programs. But the more I thought about it, he was really stating my own religious principles as a Christian (and one that fits the moral principles of many other religions as well) without actually putting it in an overtly religious context. It was a far more compelling speech on morality that I ever hear from the religious right. The fact that it was generally "off-theme" tells me it was something that really came from his heart.
Michelle always gives a great speech. As First Lady she knows not to veer into even remotely controversial political issues, but speaks as a wife and mother about the importance of values. She does so without sounding too domestic or lightweight. It is a difficult balancing act that she does with finesse. Her comment about living in a house built by slaves set off some right wing pundits a little. But that only made their protests in apparent defense of slavery look pathetic. Overall, it was a good solid uplifting speech that reminded everyone why a majority of Americans sent the Obamas to the White House, even if we do not agree on every policy issue they hold.
Bernie Sanders was the potential wild card speech. He continues to push Hillary to the left on a great many issues. This may hurt her with moderates. However, she is good at threading that needle with purposely vague and evasive statements that can please anyone until something actually needs to be enacted. Sanders gave a speech outlining his hard left positions but at the same time saying he thought Clinton had come around on most of them and that he was pleased to support her.
One rather minor issue that the press seemed to ignore: typically the losing candidate ends the roll call vote and calls for the selection of the winning candidate by acclamation. Sanders performed this roll but did not call for acclamation. His exact words were:
“I move that the convention suspend the procedural rules. I move that all votes, all votes cast by delegates be reflected in the official record, and I move that Hillary Clinton be selected as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the United States,”
There was no call for unanimous selection or acclamation, just that she be selected. In other words, he gave grudging acceptance that she had more votes than him and that he had to accept that fact. It was a subtle difference, nothing compared to Cruz's "FU Donald" speech or the fact that other primary opponents skipped the Republican Convention altogether. But Sanders' well considered lines clearly did not want to call on his delegates to vote for Clinton at the Convention.
Warren was clearly the designated attack dog for the Convention. She went after Trump on a wide range of issues, from his business practices and bankruptcies, to his lack of any substantive policy positions. It was typical red meat for hard core Convention delegates, but I don't think it did much else. I have liked Warren even before she became a Senator because she understood how Wall Street needs to be contained more. But attacking Trump for wanting to buy cheap real estate after the crash just sounds pathetic. Of course businessmen want to buy low. Criticizing that only makes you sound like you do not understand how business works. Of course Warren does understand that. So she is just demagogueing the issue.
Biden gave a pretty forgettable speech. He tried to address the personal side of Clinton and how she would work to help working people. He attacked Trump, but not nearly as savagely as Warren did. He did what a good Vice President does: say nothing to that takes things off message or distracts from the main speaker. Most of what I remember from the speech is some guy in the audience banging on a cowbell during the speech. It just kept reminding me of the Saturday Night Live cowbell sketch.
Bill is always good for an effective speech. What struck me most though is how he has aged. There seemed to be a tremble in his voice and a shake in his hand that I had not noticed before. It just sucks to get old I guess.
His speech itself though was classic Clinton. I think he did a wonderful job of trying to humanize Hillary, talking about her life growing up and her passion for helping children. Hillary needs to be humanized more as many voters see her as a political machine fueled by polls and focus groups and unwilling to speak out to her passions. Bill's speech helped with that.
Clinton's new Vice Presidential nominee also gave a relatively forgettable speech. As a conservative (for a Democrat) choice his job on the ticket is clearly to appeal to moderates or conservative leaning Democrats and moderates. He opened with a nod to his active duty military son to show that yes, Democrats do like the military. He also got to speak a few lines in Spanish, to show off that skill. He introduced himself to the public with a mix of self-deprecation and humor. I was not impressed with Kane's choice of ties. I only mention that so I could comment on the fashion choices of a male speaker without commenting on anything any of the woman speakers.
Obama had a prominent role on Wednesday evening to give his speech. The fact that he and Michelle and Biden all had prominent speeches shows that Clinton will associate herself strongly with the current Administration, not making the same mistake of Al Gore in 2000. While I disagree with many of Obama's policies, I have always admired his ability to speak intelligently and to place things in proper perspective. I think he did that effectively on Wednesday, providing an optimistic view of America, in marked contrast to the Republicans who tried to paint today's America as a post-apocalyptic dystopia needing a strong man to restore order. Obama gave a great speech, while giving a great push for the new candidate. He did not ignore their past rivalries, but held them up as an example of why she should be the next President.
Since Trump had his daughter Ivanka introduce him, Clinton decided it was appropriate to have her daughter Chelsea introduce her. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, although Ivanka really had more of a role it her father's campaign than did Chelsea. Ivanka made news by suggesting her father would pursue policy positions that he had never discussed on the campaign either before or since.
By contrast, Chelsea mostly spoke about Clinton as a loving mother and grandmother. It was not directly about advocacy of her positions, though she seems to share those, but more humanizing stories about Clinton: her love of her family as well as her passion for helping people. The speech was mostly forgettable, other than to help add to the week's theme of convincing people that Clinton is a real human being and not a political machine.
As expected, Clinton spent much of her speech on non-controversial matters like praising other speakers and thanking folks who had some role in the campaign. It made her sound gracious and considerate, challenging the image of her that conservative pundits have painted. She went after Trump in general terms, criticizing the notion that Trump alone could solve the nation's problems. That vesting such power in one person was not only unrealistic, but also dangerous and unconstitutional. It is one of the main reasons I object so strongly to Trump.
She talked about her working class upbringing and her family. Other than that, she spoke in aspirations and vague terms: we need safe communities, we need to give working people a raise, we need comprehensive immigration reform, we need to oppose unfair trade deals, we need to defeat terrorism, etc. Statements which, on their face, no one could disagree, but which we might very much disagree on the means by which we achieve those goals.
That's probably best. When she started referring core Democratic issues like the right to kill unborn babies, compelling private citizens to participate in homosexual weddings, compelling private employers to pay the price of artificially increased wages and benefits, imposing "common sense" gun control, and censoring political speech by overruling Citizens United I was only reminded about why I don't want to vote Democrat. In terms of tone, imagery, and being in touch with reality, I have to give the clear win to the Democrats.
A few other random thoughts:
The right-wing whiners jumped on the fact that there were no American flags visible on the stage on Monday night. The next day, there were about eight flags, four on either side of the stage. The next day, in addition to those flags, we started seeing flag iconography on the video screens. On Wednesday, the video screens with flag iconography sat right behind the speaker so that it would be in the shot during the speech. By the time of Clinton's speech on the final night, there were hundreds of delegates waving American flags, as well as flags attached to the bottom of each State delegation sign. Not sure how the lack of flags got missed on the first night, but there was definite scrambling in later days to make up for that.
I remember in 2008, there was almost zero discussion of Obama being the first black President until minutes after the polls closed in November. I have to think the campaign deliberately asked reporters and pundits to keep a lid on that during the election. Everyone knew he would be the first black President if elected. But the campaign did not want to make that part of the conversation. In contrast, we are already seeing numerous discussions about Hillary being the first woman President. Again, everyone already knows that, but I think the discussion during the election hurts her more than it helps.
After President Obama completed his speech, Hillary Clinton came on stage to embrace him to the applause of the Convention. It was a great image of the current and future administration working together toward the common goal of progress in America. Yet, as a student of history, I could not help but think how much that embrace said about the progress of race relations in America. Less than 50 years ago, the first interracial televised kiss on Star Trek set off a firestorm of complaints. Democratic conventions still had all white State delegations back then. A black man embracing a white woman in that very could very well have ended in a lynching. Probably the only reason it even occurred to me was that I had been reading an account of the murder of Emmett Till recently. I am proud of the fact that such an interracial embrace today does not even raise an eyebrow or evince a comment from right wing pundits. That silence is a statement to me on how far race relations have advanced in this country over only a few decades.
Upcoming Campaign Themes
A convention regularly introduces themes that the campaigns will use between now and November. We will see attacks on Trump's America First position by pointing out that all of his goods are produced overseas. We will probably see commercials interviewing "real Americans" who were scammed out of money by Trump University, or whose businesses have suffered as a result of Trump's bankruptcies or debt refinance demands. Muslim citizens with US military service, or their families seem to be an effective attack as well.
Hillary has also decided to jump on the Sanders (and Trump) bandwagon of protectionism. I am hopeful that she only speaks in vague generalities: "I will oppose bad trade deals". Of course no one wants a "bad" deal, but what exactly constitutes "bad"? You will hear this and similar lines, particularly in the Mid-west where Clinton must win protectionist votes in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The Campaign will also focus on national security, with the theme that Clinton is the adult in the room and Trump is dangerous, unstable egomaniac who will get us into war. They will use his own words to paint him as a bully, demagogue and potential tyrant.