On a normal convention night, either the sitting vice president or the newly named VP nominee would headline. When Mike Pence spoke in Cleveland last week, he was the main attraction, not the opener.
But the Democrats had a lot to fit into four days. And so Joe Biden and Tim Kaine — not to mention former CIA Director/Defense Secretary/White House Chief of Staff/Office of Management and Budget director Leon Panetta, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, California Gov. Jerry Brown, and former Congress member and mass shooting victim Gabby Giffords — served as opening acts to the main event: President Barack Obama.
Some of the openers bombed, some did surprisingly well, and along the way the speakers sent important signals about which constituencies and causes the party really values. Here’s who ended the night better than they started, and who lost ground.
Winner: Barack Obama
If you tried to describe Wednesday night to someone living nine years ago, in August of 2007, it’s hard to emphasize how strange it’d sound.
First, Barack Obama somehow beats Hillary in the primaries. Then he picks Joe Biden as VP and makes him a broadly liked national figure, rather than a Beltway elder statesman. Then he not only wins but gets reelected. And then Hillary Clinton emerged as his successor, running on praising him and his record and his experience, and picking one of Obama’s earliest allies in the primary battle as her running mate.
The sequence was supposed to go in reverse. Clinton would get the nomination after Obama put up a respectable showing. She might pick him as a running mate, or pick a fairly boring, well-qualified white dude like Biden or Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland or Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh or former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who would then run against a more seasoned Obama in the 2016 primary.
That would have resulted in a very different Democratic Party in 2016. It would be a party inextricably, personally linked to the Clinton family, whose only qualified public servants and potential Cabinet appointees are people personally loyal to the Clintons. It would be a considerably more militarily hawkish party. It would be a party in which black and Latino voters are a growing constituency, but one unrepresented at the highest levels of party leadership.
Instead, the party that convenes this week in Philadelphia is Obama’s party, built around Obama’s accomplishments, gathered to nominate Clinton to consolidate and further the progress initiated by Obama, not the other way around.
Obama was gracious about this victory. He extensively praised Clinton, emphasized his decision to appoint her as secretary of state, and buried and reburied whatever hatchet remained from the 2008 fight. But he didn’t let anyone forget who was the prime mover, who signed Obamacare and Dodd-Frank and the stimulus and opened Cuba and made a nuclear deal with Iran. He didn’t let anyone forget that Clinton was there to make sure that what he did survives.
"We're going to carry Hillary to victory this fall, because that's what the moment demands," he told delegates, adding, conspicuously, "Yes, we can."
Obama’s absorption of Clinton into his own agenda, and his own legacy, mirrors what has happened at a personnel level. Clinton’s campaign has enjoyed the support and staff of Obama’s past efforts. It purposely rounded up support from ex-Obamaites early on. And in the clearest sign of Clinton’s allegiance to Obamaism to date, the campaign picked Tim Kaine, who was one of Obama’s first early endorsers in 2007, as her running mate.
And it mirrors what Clinton has done with her own campaign. Throughout the primary fight with Bernie Sanders, Clinton repeatedly tried to recast Sanders’s critiques of her as critiques of Obama — knowing that Obama is a more popular with figure with Democrats, that his name means more.
Obama achieved the intraparty victory he showcased tonight a long time ago. But Wednesday night’s speech was nonetheless a remarkable reminder of just how completely he has made this party his own.
Winner: Joe Biden
Joe Biden is in an awkward position. When previous vice presidents have been in his position — when Al Gore, George H.W. Bush, and Hubert Humphrey were in his position — they typically ran for president, and won their party’s nomination. Dick Cheney didn’t run, but he never intended to. The closest analogue to Biden is Alben Barkley, Harry Truman’s VP, who tried and failed to win the party’s nomination in 1952 — a fate Biden avoided mostly by not running at all.
So here Biden was, facing a convention that he wishes were nominating him, and at which he remains quite popular. In that unenviable position, he stepped up in a big way. He gave exactly the speech that someone needed to give on Clinton’s behalf: a speech aimed squarely at working-class voters who might be attracted to Trump’s agenda.
The idea that support for Trump is driven by economic anxiety rather than racism is close to a punchline at this point. It just doesn’t jibe with all the quantitative evidence from surveys of Trump voters, and it doesn’t explain why this seemingly economic-driven revolt is coming at a time when the economy is doing better than it’s done in a decade.
But the theory’s failure as an explanatory approach doesn’t mean that voters who respond to Trump’s racism might also respond to economic appeals. These are voters who won’t be persuaded if you tell them that Trump is a xenophobe, that he’s bigoted against Muslims. Those are features, not bugs, to them.
So instead of highlighting the aspects of Trump that make him so uniquely horrifying to Democrats, to reach these voters surrogates need to make an orthogonal argument, to change the subject to a topic the voters also care about and where their values are closer to Democrats’ than to Trump’s.
This was Biden’s task, and he nailed it. He did not try to convince viewers to oppose Trump on anti-racist grounds. He tried to convince them on pocketbook grounds, to convince them Trump is a fraud who does not care at all about their material needs. "He is trying to tell us he cares about the middle class," Biden scoffed. "Give me a break. That is a bunch of malarkey."
Watch: Joe Biden's comments on Donald Trump
He touted his own proletarian credentials: "I know I'm called middle-class Joe and in Washington, that is not meant as a compliment. It means you are not sophisticated. I know why we are strong, I know why we are held together."
Biden’s speech was meant to target the anti-elite, populist tone of the Trump campaign head on. It was one of the only speeches in this entire convention to date to do that. Who knows if the approach will work, but it shows promise, and Biden deserves credit for being the only one to really try.
Winner: Dad jokes
America’s vice presidents need a personae, a personae they necessarily define after their selection due to their pre-VP run obscurity. Dan Quayle was a dunce. Al Gore was a dullard. Dick Cheney was a cartoonish supervillain. Joe Biden smokes ditch weed in his Camaro with no shirt on.
Wednesday night, Tim Kaine got his persona. He’s a fun dad. You know, the kind of guy who sings hip-hop wrong to children and offers them tuna melts. Or the kind of guy who, as Kaine did, spends most of his vice presidential acceptance speech doing a not particularly great impression of Donald Trump:
Tim Kaine seems like the kind of guy who buys you 5 shares of stock for your 10th birthday and tells you to "hold onto those, kiddo"— jake beckman (@jakebeckman) July 28, 2016
If Tim Kaine has any secret emails, they're probably to his bike buddies reminding them to bring spare tubes on the group ride.— Benjamin Freed (@brfreed) July 28, 2016
I asked a former staffer to tell me something about Kaine. "He doesn’t just carry a harmonica—he carries *4* harmonicas," she said.— Molly Ball (@mollyesque) July 28, 2016
It’s an easy trope to mock, but also one that’s potentially effective. Kaine is just goofier than Clinton, than Obama, arguably even than Biden, one of the goofiest national-level politicians in the history of American politics. That gives him a looseness, an ease with audiences, that enables him to be warmer, more purposely endearing and chummy, than Democrats’ uber-cerebral presidential nominees can be.
And ultimately, it’s not a bad shtick if you can get it. Due to the inherent silliness of the vice presidency, a position that is basically powerless 99 percent of the time but has a small probability of becoming the most powerful position in the entire world, most VPs get saddled with negative reps. Think Al Gore, the boring man who says he invented the internet, or George H.W. Bush, the weak-willed Reagan underling. That’s not always enough to sink a VP’s career (Bush and Gore both won the popular vote in presidential races), but it’s enough to hurt them.
Kaine has lucked into a reputation that’s ridiculous but fundamentally innocuous. That’s a neat trick to pull off.
Loser: Rahm Emanuel
It’s a rare thing to see a president throw one of his senior advisers entirely under the bus, on national television, but that’s exactly what happened Wednesday night. In telling the story of the passage of Obamacare, President Obama’s intro video included a detail familiar to political junkies but not typically emphasized in the administration’s own communications: Many of his advisers thought he should abandon the fight for health care reform.
The first battle happened in August 2009, as the effort was stuck in the Senate Finance Committee, and was losing popularity. Some in Obama's circle urged him to give up, most notably Joe Biden — and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. But Obama stuck with it.
Then again, after Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate election, "Rahm Emanuel was, once again, proposing to find a quick deal on a smaller bill that would insure just kids," Jonathan Cohn writes in his history of the bill's passage. "And he wasn’t just talking it up internally. He’d discussed the idea with members of Congress, and, in February, The Wall Street Journal published a story about it."
Time after time, when the going got tough, Emanuel proposed the administration fold. He viewed maintaining approval ratings as more important than using a congressional majority to pass historic, transformational legislation. It was an astonishing display of political cowardice that seemed to confirm the worst parts of Rahm’s reputation as a principle-less political opportunist.
Years later, Obama is a popular two-term president who achieved the dream of health care reform, and Emanuel is a reviled second-term mayor of Chicago, constantly under pressure to resign as the city suffers staggering levels of violence and he continues to take heat due to allegations that his administration covered up a video of police killing Laquan McDonald, an unarmed black man. Obama is near the highest point in his career. Emanuel could be at the end, the unplanned end, of his.
And just when Emanuel was at his lowest, Obama threw him under the bus. He mentioned Emanuel’s cowardice on health care in prime time, during the convention. He humiliated his former chief of staff before a national audience. It was a justified action — Rahm’s behavior was genuinely disgraceful — but nonetheless startling in its brutality.
One of the most jarring moments of Wednesday night came during the remarks of Leon Panetta, a figure who has served in an impressively diverse array of powerful positions in Democratic administrations. He was budget director and chief of staff to Bill Clinton, and CIA director and defense secretary to Obama. He was the CIA leader who killed bin Laden, earning a very positive film portrayal by James Gandolfini for his trouble.
But Panetta got by far the most hostile reaction of any DNC speaker to date, and that includes Michael Bloomberg, who purposely included attacks on the Democratic Party in his speech. He was booed, and at times drowned out by chants of "no more wars":
That’s the thing: As CIA director, Panetta was the public face of the drone program, the most blatantly militaristic, civil liberties–defying policy of the Obama administration. When he was director, the administration made the decision to put Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, on a kill list; when Panetta was defense secretary, that order was carried out.
Obama was elected in large part on a promise to tack away from the liberal hawk tradition exemplified by Hillary Clinton and her advisers. In some sense, he has done that. It’s easy to imagine a President Clinton intervening in Syria in 2011, whereas Obama didn’t. It’s easy to imagine her being more aggressive and committing more troops against ISIS in 2014, not least since she’s explicitly called for a no-fly zone.
But "better than Clinton" was not necessarily enough to make the dovish wing of the Democratic Party feel like the battle was won. American robots were still raining death from the skies — and a liberal president, a president elected because he opposed the Iraq War when it counted, whipped up the legal rationales to support that appalling practice.
The doves didn’t do much better with Bernie Sanders, who gained their support basically by default but who has never really cared much either way about foreign policy issues, and who supports drone strikes as well. But the success of the Sanders campaign did promise this wing of the party representation as delegates, delegates who were then able to protest Panetta.
Their anger is understandable. It was understandable under Obama, and it’s especially understandable as he and the entire Democratic Party prepare to fight for the election of someone who promises a markedly more militaristic approach to the Middle East. No matter who wins this November, American foreign policy is going to get more bellicose. There will be more bombs. Fights that Obama would’ve avoided will be fought.
Even if doves accept Clinton as the lesser of two evils, this is a regrettable situation if you consider reducing American violence abroad a crucial goal. And lamenting it during Panetta’s remarks was a totally appropriate response.
Loser: Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg gave a good speech. "Let's elect a sane, competent person" is a good line. He’s the only legitimately surprising person in the DNC lineup. But the odds that he’ll persuade anybody on the fence to vote for Clinton are very low.
Bloomberg is not a particularly well-known national figure. In January, as he weighed a presidential bid, Morning Consult found that a whopping 43 percent of Americans didn't know if they viewed him favorably or unfavorably. Four percent more viewed him favorably than not, but all the same his total favorable rating was a mere 30 percent — well below either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
And if you look at the crosstabs, he's most popular with Democrats, and less so with independents. He's disliked by 2012 Romney voters, and people who didn't vote that year haven't heard of him.
The idea that there’s some sizable pro-Bloomberg constituency, that’s no already sold on the Democratic ticket, is just not borne out by the numbers.
Moreover, what we know about the thinking of political "moderates" suggests that ones supporting a Bloomberg-esque combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism are the exception, not the rule. Research from political scientists David Broockman and Doug Ahler suggests that most self-identified moderate voters aren't that kind of centrist at all. People who want lots of government programs but also are skeptical of abortion and immigration are a more typical kind of moderate. Indeed, Donald Trump is probably closer to most real American moderates than Bloomberg.
The real demographic group Clinton is struggling with are white men without college degrees — a group that Democrats always lose but are doing particularly poorly with this time around. This, suffice it to say, is not the group that an elitist New York City plutocrat beloved of Ivy Leaguers like Bloomberg is bound to win over. Fifty-two percent of respondents to the Morning Consult poll without college degrees had never even heard of Bloomberg.
The more likely result of Bloomberg’s speech is a further shift of his public reputation, from a true independent to a typical center-left Democrats, maybe one or two ticks to the right of Hillary Clinton on civil liberties and crime. That is already Bloomberg’s reputation is some quarters, but strengthening it will only damage his nonpartisan brand and paint him as yet another moneyed Democrat.
Losers: Pro-gun Democrats
It’s easy to forget now, in the eighth year of a popular Democratic president’s tenure with a Democrat leading the polls to succeed him, but the '00s, up until the 2006 midterms, were a period of near-total panic by Democratic operatives.
First George W. Bush, elected without winning the popular vote, gained a surge of popularity after 9/11. Then Republicans gained seats in the 2002 midterm elections, the first time a first-term incumbent’s party had done that since 1934. Then Bush won reelection despite presiding over an increasingly unpopular war.
Theories abounded about how best to stanch the damage, but one persistent theme was that Democrats should — must — move to the right on guns. Data point No. 1 was Mark Warner’s election to the Virginia governorship in 2001 as an enthusiastically pro-gun candidate, but pretty soon the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates were getting in on the game.
"In [Vermont], we have no gun control of any kind," Howard Dean, who was running as the left candidate that year, bragged. "We don't need gun control in our state, other than the federal gun control, which I support." He told crowds he was "more conservative" on the issue than his rivals.
John Kerry accused Dean of pandering to the National Rifle Association, but then in the general election he did exactly the same thing. While he supported efforts to close the gun show loophole, his campaign site’s section on guns began, "John Kerry is a gun owner and hunter, and he believes that law-abiding American adults have the right to own guns." In October, he went on a hunting trip as a visual confirmation of his commitment to gun rights.
In retrospect, the moment this all changed was the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012. After that, the Democratic base demanded that gun control measures become a cornerstone of the party’s agenda. A push for expanded background check was a major emphasis in 2013. Hillary Clinton successfully used Bernie Sanders’s Vermont-driven pro-gun record against him, barely a decade after Dean’s Vermont-driven pro-gun record was touted as a major asset.
This is the first post–Sandy Hook Democratic convention, and it was littered with reminders of that event, of other mass shootings, and testimonials to Hillary Clinton’s commitment to cracking down on guns. Wednesday night featured Christine Leinonen, whose son Christopher died in the Orlando shootings. It featured Erica Smegielski, the daughter of Sandy Hook Elementary School's slain principal. It featured Chris Murphy, the Connecticut senator elected the month before Sandy Hook who adopted the issue as his prime concern, and led a filibuster for gun control last month.
And it featured Tim Kaine, a longtime enemy of the NRA, as the VP pick — not Warner, his fellow, more pro-gun senator.
The convention, then, solidified a shift that has been underway over the past four years, from gun control as a cause abandoned by both parties to a revival of the '90s dynamic of partisan polarization on the matter. There is little room in the party anymore for candidates opposed to universal background checks or an assault weapons ban. You can celebrate or bemoan that shift, but it happened quickly, and the new consensus is entrenched very firmly.