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Democrats have stolen the GOP's best rhetoric — and Republicans have noticed

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

One of the unexpected consequences of Donald Trump's angry pessimism is that it has forced the GOP to cede some of its strongest themes to Democrats.

Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, noticed this during night three of the Democratic National Convention:

It’s usually the GOP that hammers away at family values, patriotism, and American exceptionalism. But Trump has tossed away all those messages — allowing the Democrats to seize on them and redefine them. Democrats have taken this chance to argue that they have always believed in the same things too, just a little differently.

Back in 2008, Sarah Palin pounced on the notion that there was a "real America" — an America that excluded the coasts and anyone who voted for Democrats. Now, thanks to Trump, the Democrats have managed to turn that attack back around, arguing that they represent the real America — or at least the America that the nation aspires to be.

Michelle Obama and Tim Kaine reclaimed "family values"

Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday night was an elegant reclamation of family values and the American mainstream for Democrats in general and the Obamas in particular. Whereas many Republicans center those values in the moral code of evangelical Christianity, Obama emphasized community and togetherness — that the most important family value is wanting a good example and a better life for your children.

Tim Kaine, the vice presidential candidate, picked up the religion and morality section of the argument on Wednesday night, emphasizing his faith and the importance of his family (including his corny dad jokes) in a way that Donald Trump never did. "We’re all neighbors, and we must love our neighbors as ourselves," Kaine said.

Joe Biden made a forceful, patriotic, nationalistic argument

Meanwhile, throughout the convention, Democrats have implicitly argued that it is they who love America before — because, unlike Trump, they recognize it is already great.

Vice President Joe Biden gave this argument its purest expression on Wednesday night, in a full-throated argument for a proud, liberal nationalism that explicitly catered to the self-image of working-class people who already considered themselves "real Americans":

We have the finest fighting force in the world. Not only do we have the largest economy in the world, we have the strongest economy in the world. We have the most productive workers in the world. And given a fair shot, given a fair chance, Americans have never, ever, ever, ever, ever let the country down. Never!

Michael Bloomberg made the business case for Clinton

When businessmen run for office, often as Republicans, they tend to argue that people who have run businesses understand how to get things done — they’ll bring practicality, competence, and a level head to politics. (George W. Bush, who had an MBA, made a version of this pitch in 2000. So did Mitt Romney in 2012.)

Bloomberg, during his speech Wednesday night, turned that rhetoric around and used it to make an impassioned case for Hillary Clinton. He’d been a businessman, he said, and he could testify that what America needed was "a problem solver, not a bomb thrower."

The case he made was essentially that as a businessman, he knows what it requires to run the country — and the person with those skills is a lifelong politician who’s spent little time in the private sector. It was the 2012 argument in favor of Mitt Romney’s candidacy, employed in favor of a Democrat.

Democrats hammered on veterans’ issues and recalled the 9/11 attacks

One of the most memorable lines Wednesday night — one that got cheers from the Democratic audience — was about the greatness of John McCain, Obama’s original opponent in 2008.

"I served in the same Navy as John McCain," said retired Rear Adm. John Hutson. "I used to vote in the same party as John McCain. Donald, you're not fit to polish John McCain's boots."

Democrats aren’t just embracing McCain; they’re portraying themselves as the party that stands up for the military, and for veterans, after Donald Trump called it a "disaster." And it’s not just the military.

In part because Clinton was a senator from New York in 2001, this could well be the first convention in 15 years where Democrats have discussed the 9/11 attacks — and honored their victims and the first responders — considerably more often than Republicans did.

President Obama stole the Republican Party’s favorite rhetorical flourishes

Meanwhile, Obama’s speech was shot through with Republican-sounding themes — approving references to Ronald Reagan and the "city on a hill," reminders about the importance of the founding documents, a paean to American democracy. (And it wasn’t just Obama — partly because the convention is in Philadelphia, speaker after speaker has included a quick nod to the writing of the Declaration of Independence there.)

Obama could do it in part because nobody at the Republican National Convention was leaning on those metaphors.

Donald Trump let Democrats stop being the party of "me too"

Nothing has stopped Democrats in the past from arguing that they’re patriotic too, or nationalistic too, or want the best for business too — and that they just have different ways of expressing those values. They often have. But because Republicans have leaned so hard on those arguments, the "too" has always been there, implicit or explicit.

What Trump’s campaign has done is allow the Democrats to replace that me-too-ism with something stronger. The case they’ve made over three days is that they are the party of family values, period — not that they have family values, too, just different ones. They’re the party of patriotism, period. They’re the party of business, period. They’re the party of the military, of veterans, and of honoring the memory of 9/11, period.

They’re the party of real Americans, period.

Republicans? The Democrats have left them nothing but being the party of Donald Trump.

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