If you thought the open booing of Ted Cruz during the Republican National Convention was a sign that the event had gotten way out of hand, then the first day of the Democrats’ convention was something else entirely.
During speech after speech, even by Sanders supporters like former NAACP head Ben Jealous or Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Bernie Sanders fans booed and occasionally interrupted with chants of, "Lock her up!" or "No TPP!" Despite repeated attempts by Sanders himself to calm the insurrection, it kept going.
But by the end of the night, the insurrection had calmed down. Pro-Bernie speakers, and Bernie himself, used their time slots to acknowledge Bernie dead-enders’ grievances and make a case for Clinton aimed directly at them. And from the look of things, it worked.
Here’s who left opening night better off, and who took some hits.
Winner: Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton are the only two people living on Earth to have the experience of putting a career on hold to become first lady of the United States. Rosalynn Carter and Barbara Bush were primarily homemakers before moving to the White House. Laura Bush had quit her job as a librarian long before George W. Bush made it to Washington. But Clinton gave up her job as a partner at a prestigious Little Rock law firm. Obama gave up a senior executive position at the University of Chicago Hospitals.
When Clinton was at the stage that Obama has now reached, she was running for Senate in New York, as it was her turn to forge her own political career once Bill’s was finished. Obama has shown little interest in following that path; she declined to challenge Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) this year and has over and over again expressed reluctance about her husband’s decision to go into politics in the first place, not exactly a sign of an insatiable political animal who’ll miss this life terribly.
But for all their differences, she shares with Clinton a conviction that the position of first lady — with its focus on domesticity and family — needn’t be limiting, and can be a powerful platform to express the administration and party’s values and ideals. And you can see that theme woven throughout her convention speech. Clinton, she said again and again, will do right by our families. She will do right by our children.
The cynical reading is that Obama is accepting the limited understanding of first lady as confined to commenting on and thinking about traditional women’s and parenting issues. But something more substantial is going on here. Clinton has spent much of her life, from her time at the Children’s Defense Fund to It Takes a Village to her current push on paid parental leave, demanding that "women’s issues" be taken seriously, that concerns of parenting and children and motherhood are as important as anything else on the minds of presidents.
Obama hit that message again and again and again, with feeling and conviction:
I trust Hillary to lead this country because I have seen her lifelong devotion to our nation’s children. Not just her own daughter, who she has raised to perfection. But every child who needs a champion. Kids who take the long way to school to avoid the gangs. Kids who wonder how they will ever afford college. Kids whose parents don't speak a word of English but dream of a better life. Who look to us to dream of what they can be. Hillary has spent decades doing the relentless work to actually make a difference in their lives.
…Hillary understands that the president is about one thing and one thing only — it is about leaving something better for our kids.
…Because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.
And after a primary race in which the failings of the first Clinton administration on mass incarceration and welfare and other racially charged issues came to the fore repeatedly, Obama explicitly tied the historic nature of Clinton’s campaign to the historic progress represented by her and her husband’s move to the White House:
Leaders like Hillary Clinton who have the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in the highest and hardest glass ceiling until they finally break through, lifting all of us along with her.
That is the story of this country. The story that has brought me to the stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent black young women, play with the dog on the White House lawn.
Here, too, Obama is recentering her role as first lady and mother as a role of consequence. That Malia and Sasha are playing and living and thriving in rooms built using slave labor, by slave owners who never dreamed that they were building a home for the descendants of the men they kept as property, is itself a political act, a political accomplishment, a real step forward for the country.
Tellingly, Obama did not mention Trump. Hers was a purely positive speech, the kind of soaring, inspirational oratory that made her husband famous 12 years ago. A week after Obama’s national debut speech at the 2008 convention was plagiarized by Trump’s wife, her remarks tonight felt like the ultimate rebuke. She is a more confident, fluent, and powerful speaker than she was in 2008 — and a far more persuasive one, too.
Winner: Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders lost the presidential race well over a month ago, which meant that his goal at the convention was to a) try to win over his supporters to the Clinton camp and ensure a Trump defeat; b) curry favor with Democratic elites such that he can retain his position as the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee and be positioned to shape budget policy should Democrats retake the Senate; and c) maintain the support of his following such that he can continue to mobilize them to support whatever efforts he pursues in the Senate going forward.
Goals A and B are conveniently very well-aligned. C, however, has to be balanced carefully. Sanders had to persuade his followers that he hadn’t sold out but that they still need to vote for the candidate he spent the whole primary telling them was beholden to corporate America.
His remarks struck that balance well. The speech was unmistakably Sanders. There were invocations of the political revolution, of the greed of Wall Street and pharmaceutical companies, the reference to $27 average donations and the need for tuition-free college. There was all the red meat a Bern feeler could’ve asked for.
But that red meat was tethered strongly to a repeated, clear, and unequivocal reiteration of his endorsement of Clinton:
Hillary Clinton understands that if someone in America works 40 hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty. She understands that we must raise the minimum wage to a living wage. And she is determined to create millions of new jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure – our roads, bridges, water systems, and wastewater plants.
But her opponent – Donald Trump – well, he has a very different view. He does not support raising the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour – a starvation wage. While Donald Trump believes in huge tax breaks for billionaires, he believes that states should actually have the right to lower the minimum wage below $7.25. What an outrage!
If this sounds like Sanders’s typical calls for more infrastructure and jobs spending, and a $15-an-hour minimum wage, with Clinton’s name added, that’s exactly the point. He’s arguing that Clinton is not merely better than Trump but is affirmatively committed to the principles that drove his own campaign.
And he didn’t ignore the cognitive dissonance created by him praising a candidate he was fiercely condemning not two months ago. He instead told a plausible story of how he came aboard, one that emphasized the gains he and his movement made in the process:
It is no secret that Hillary Clinton and I disagree on a number of issues. That’s what this campaign has been about. That’s what democracy is about. But I am happy to tell you that at the Democratic platform committee there was a significant coming together between the two campaigns, and we produced, by far, the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. Among many other strong provisions, the Democratic Party now calls for breaking up the major financial institutions on Wall Street and the passage of a 21st-century Glass-Steagall Act. It also calls for strong opposition to job-killing free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
It was the ideal Sanders speech both for keeping his supporters on his side and for trying to move them to Clinton’s camp, and every major Democrat should be thrilled at how well he nailed it.
Winner: Sarah Silverman
Who could have guessed that the comedian behind this bit would’ve gone off script and off message in her DNC appearance?
You can understand why the DNC organizers scheduled time for Silverman. She was paired with fellow Saturday Night Live alum Sen. Al Franken, who presumably would keep her on track. The two, one a comedian supporting Clinton and the other a comedian supporting Sanders, made a good pro-unity pairing. Using their call for a "bridge" between the two sides of the primary divide as an opening for Paul Simon’s performance of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was a little corny, but what political convention isn’t?
But when Silverman was added, organizers presumably didn’t know there’d be a substantial number of pro-Bernie hecklers. They didn’t know she’d effectively be charged with winning over the most hostile and skeptical segment of the audience. And they thus didn’t anticipate that she would respond to the situation the way any comedian facing hecklers would — by fighting back, and telling the crowd, "Can I just say, to the Bernie or bust people, you're being ridiculous."
That was definitely not in the script. The words "Bernie or Bust" were not supposed to be uttered; even mentioning it is giving the idea more attention than national Democrats really want. And directly confronting the Bernie die-hards risks alienating them further and adding to the convention’s drama.
Here’s the thing, though: It looks like it worked. The comment brought on a wave of applause, and Vox reporters on the floor say the response was overwhelmingly positive.
"The most effective speech by a celebrity I've ever seen." -Republican Nicole Wallace, on Sarah Silverman's appearance #DNCinPHL— Doug Benson (@DougBenson) July 26, 2016
Obviously, some Bernie die-hards won’t be persuaded by Silverman, and might even be put off. But for casual Bernie supporters watching at home, weighing whether to stay home or throw in for Hillary, it might have been the bracing moment they needed to get on board.
And millions not watching at home will probably see aggregations of the moment floating around on Facebook and Google and hear, even in passing, the idea that "Bernie or Bust" is a joke. That wouldn’t have happened if Silverman had approached the speech more traditionally and stuck to the script.
Winner: American exceptionalism
Traditionally, the left and even many liberals have had a conflicted relationship with American political culture’s insistence that America is wonderful and must be celebrated. Almost by definition, to be liberal, or at least anti-conservative, in this country is to embrace the idea that America or at least its government needs to change.
The health care system should be less American and more Canadian. The tuition system for higher education should be less American and more German. The family leave policy should be less American and more Swedish. America’s preeminence in the world is a mixed blessing that leads to disasters like Vietnam and Iraq as much as it does triumphs like the end of the Soviet Union.
This is a tension conservatives have identified and exploited to great effect. You can see it in attacks on "socialized medicine" and European-style "class warfare," and in more sophisticated and paranoid attacks like Dinesh D’Souza’s claim that Barack Obama is animated by a fundamentally foreign anti-colonialist perspective.
Then something weird happened: Republicans nominated Donald Trump. And Donald Trump is not a fan of America, or at least America as it currently exists. Even as he argues for a fervently nationalistic foreign policy and appeals to his base with jingoistic rhetoric, Trump’s overarching slogan proclaims that America must be made great again, that it has lost a past glory, that something is, at this juncture, fundamentally wrong with it.
That, combined with the major progress of the Obama administration in making America more like the universal health care–boasting, marriage equality–having, anti-racist country liberals have wanted for decades, has enabled a Democratic convention that is almost unprecedentedly patriotic and celebratory of America:
- Eva Longoria: " A Latina from south Texas is introducing the first black senator from New Jersey on the week we will nominate our first female candidate for president of the United States. So guess what, Donald, it turns out America is pretty great already."
- Cory Booker: "Free from fear and intimidation, let us declare we are a nation of interdependence and that in America love always trumps hate. Let us declare so that generations yet unborn can hear us. We are the United States of America. Our best days are ahead of us."
- Michelle Obama: "Don't let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great. That somehow we need to make a great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth."
- Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA): "Donald Trump says the American dream is dead. Why does he want to lead America when he does not even believe in America? Donald Trump is wrong. This is a remarkable country. By geography and by destiny, we are a land set apart."
- Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA): "Donald, let me say this. America is great. It is the country that gave my family the opportunity for a better life, just like all immigrants who came before them. It is because of our diversity that we are the envy of the world."
Not every speaker took this tone; Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, naturally, kept the focus on America’s problems with money in politics and persistent economic disparities. And to be sure, the tone of the event was not quietist. There’s plenty more the speakers want done — and expect Clinton to do if elected.
But Sanchez’s comment is nonetheless instructive. This election is about immigration, due to Trump’s obsessive focus on the issue. And immigration really is an issue on which the US stands apart. No other rich nation shares our historical commitment to taking in large numbers of immigrants and integrating them into the American community and economy. Denmark, otherwise looked to by liberals as a model, is horrendously disappointing at letting in refugees and immigrants. It’s basically a gated community as a nation.
This is a place where the Democratic platform is genuinely more in line with American tradition and distinctively American values, and the convention speakers have noticed. The result is an exuberant, celebratory take on America and its history from a left-of-center perspective, something that few orators not named Barack Obama have tried much at all.
Loser: Debbie Wasserman Schultz
First, Debbie Wasserman Schultz was going to open the convention as the Democratic National Committee’s chair. Then she resigned her position under pressure but was still going to open the convention. Then she ultimately didn’t get to do anything at all. Her role at the convention was limited to a breakfast meeting with the Florida delegation, a meeting that was greeted by throngs of pro-Sanders protesters armed with anti–Wasserman Schultz signs.
And she’ll go home to a contentious primary election on August 30 with a challenger, Tim Canova, who has out-fundraised her and is endorsed by Bernie Sanders and supported by Sanders's large movement of supporters still grieving his loss to Clinton. The race previously looked like a gimme for Wasserman Schultz, but that appears to be changing, at least in the eyes of state Sen. and delegate Eleanor Sobel, a DWS ally:
In an interview three weeks ago, Sobel said Wasserman Schultz wouldn't have any problem defeating Canova in the primary. On Monday, she was less certain. "I hope not," she said when asked if Wasserman Schultz is in danger of losing.
"I don't know. I think there are people just like myself who believe that Debbie has done so much for our community. She's a known entity. We know what she can do. And she will continue fighting," Sobel said.
At the start of this weekend, Wasserman Schultz was, at least on paper, one of the most powerful Democrats in the country. By the end of August, she could be a lame-duck incumbent without a political position in Congress, the DNC, or anywhere.
This has been a long time coming, however. Reportedly, John Podesta, the chair of Clinton's campaign, asked to remove Wasserman Schultz last fall, only to have Obama nix the idea — not because he didn't want her gone, but because he thought it'd be too much drama.
"The Obama team — especially 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina — long viewed Wasserman Schultz as a major campaign liability, questioning her fundraising prowess and her tendency to appoint personal aides to positions of authority, prioritizing loyalty over competence and effectiveness as a spokesperson for Democrats," report Politico's Glenn Thrush, Gabriel Debenedetti, and Edward-Isaac Dovere.
She made a whole new set of enemies with the primary campaign, in which Sanders supporters, and Sanders himself, saw her as violating the DNC’s promise of neutrality and subtly making decisions that helped Clinton. As Vox’s Jeff Stein explains, "She got into bitter arguments with the Sanders camp about obscure Nevada caucus rules, made a mess of the debate schedule, fought over ballot access data, and may have helped Clinton skirt the campaign finance rules."
So when WikiLeaks released emails showing DNC staff bashing Sanders, that was the last straw. Wasserman Schultz was out of the chair position within 24 hours. By Monday, she was no longer opening the convention. It was a long time coming, but when it came, it happened fast. And the rest of the Democratic establishment wasn’t particularly broken up about it:
Senior Dem, close to the Clintons, to me just now 'Thank you Wikileaks for accomplishing something we couldn't'— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) July 24, 2016
At this point, the best-case scenario for Wasserman Schultz is that she wins her primary and gets reelected to the House. She'll become the chair of an appropriations subcommittee if Democrats ever win back their majority. Who knows, maybe she'll chair the whole Appropriations Committee some day. But her time in the national limelight is over. And if the primary goes wrong, her time in elected politics will be over too.
Political parties don’t generally campaign on issues on which they agree. You don’t see Republican Senate candidates going from town to town saying, "Bribing politicians to enact certain policies should remain a crime," and Hillary Clinton hasn’t formally announced, "I think alcohol should continue to be legal." There’s no actual political debate on the topics, and so it doesn’t come up.
That’s why it’s so odd to compare the rhetoric on trade at the DNC with that at the RNC last week. Here are a few statements; some are from Trump’s acceptance speech, some from the first night of the DNC. Can you tell which is which?
- "It begins with a new, fair trade policy that protects our jobs and stands up to countries that cheat."
- "We need to fight for trade policies that put American workers first, which means we must say no to bad trade deals, and that includes the TPP."
- "Trade deals … strip our country of jobs."
- "We need to commit ourselves to making good-paying jobs here at home."
- "I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals."
- "We believe that the United States should never sign trade deals that help big corporations and leave workers in the dirt."
The odd statements are Trump; the even ones are Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), respectively. The rhetoric is nearly identical. Both parties are committing themselves to opposing unrestricted free trade and outsourcing and, more specifically, the TPP — even though the incumbent Democratic president is the one who negotiated it.
You could see this foreshadowed over the weekend, when newly named Clinton running mate Tim Kaine told reporters he shared Clinton’s opposition to TPP, a deal he had praised as recently as Thursday. Of course, Clinton came out against the deal after having been involved in its negotiation in her role as secretary of state; it was a bizarre turnaround, one that she still has yet to adequately explain and that only makes sense as a way to temper the strength of Bernie Sanders’s primary challenge.
And yet she’s not only stuck with it but insisted that her running mate adopt her position as well, and let the opening night of her convention involved repeated attacks on the deal.
It’s reasonable to be skeptical that Clinton will actually uphold her election-year stance upon taking office. It was telling that during a portion of the convention devoted to attacking Trump’s outsourcing record, the DNC aired a video starring Austan Goolsbee, the former White House chief economist who famously told Canadian officials in 2008 that Obama was just bullshitting when he said he wanted to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In practice, most presidents, regardless of their campaign rhetoric on trade, abide closely to WTO rules upon taking office and pursue additional bi- and multilateral agreements.
But the attack on TPP specifically could prove significant. It’s possible Clinton will amend it slightly, declare her concerns adequately addressed, and push it through Congress as though she’d never opposed it at all. But that’d be very awkward after her campaign position, and political scientists have found that campaign promises have surprisingly large effects on administration policy. It’s likelier that the agreement will simply die under her, as under Trump, if Obama can’t push it through in the lame-duck session.
That’s a major defeat for the main part of the American trade agenda of the past five or so years. And it suggests that the old party alignments on trade, with Republicans enthusiastically supporting free trade and Democrats being slightly more skeptical but still pretty on board, are being disrupted. Now the Republicans are the most outspokenly protectionist party, and Democrats attack them as hypocrites ("Trump outsources his T-shirts!" etc. ) but do not challenge their underlying trade skepticism.
Having Republicans be the stronger trade opponents more closely matches where actual voters are on trade issues, but if anything, Democrats are running the risk of being more trade-skeptical than their base is. Pew polling found that while 56 percent of Democratic voters say free trade agreements have been a good thing for the US, only 38 percent of Republicans agree. They're likelier to endorse NAFTA than Republicans are as well.
That Democratic trade enthusiasm was nowhere in evidence at the DNC — especially on TPP.