There were concerns in the weeks before the Democratic National Convention that it hadn’t been well organized and risked portraying a party that didn’t have its act together.
The convention that wrapped up Thursday night with the historic nomination of Hillary Clinton for president offered a primer on how to stage one of these events, as even envious Republicans acknowledged. Over its four days, the event mixed elements of passion, control, patriotism, expertise, pathos and optimism into a whole that largely did for Democrats what they needed: to draw a sharp distinction between their hopeful message and the frightened one offered by Donald Trump at last week’s Republican convention.
It had its glitches, but even they weren’t as troublesome as they could have been. In particular, the supporters of Bernie Sanders made their displeasure known during Monday’s opening night, but after that, for the most part, they were silenced by the appeals of Sanders, himself, and by the pointed criticism of comedian Sarah Silverman, who had campaigned for the Vermont senator but told the “Bernie or bust” crowd that they were being “ridiculous.” It was a Sister Souljah moment by proxy.
But it wasn’t just that Democrats handled their own internal problems better than Republicans, who loudly booed Ted Cruz for his failure to endorse Trump, who drove off important party leaders and who could attract star power no brighter than Scott Baio. They also co-opted broad national themes that had once been standard Republican fare, until this year when, under Trump, the convention largely turned its back on them.
Chief among them was patriotism. It was Democrats this year who lauded the military and who drew support from retired four-star Gen. John Allen, who has most recently been special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. But also there was family, faith and even law and order. That last item Trump promised to restore – immediately and on his own – but he left enough room for Democrats to claim the issue as part of its agenda.
Perhaps most broadly, though, Democrats appropriated the sunny optimism that was the hallmark of the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, and before that, Franklin Roosevelt. It wasn’t so much theft as a case of finders-keepers.
Under Trump, Republicans think their path to victory is in scaring the country into voting for the man who boasts that only he can fix the nation’s problems. Democrats picked up the discarded Republican playbook, updated it for 2016 and ran with it.
This convention’s highlights shone brightly: speeches by first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, former president Bill Clinton and President Obama. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a powerful case for non-Democrats to vote for Clinton.
Others presentations were unexpectedly moving, especially the indictment of Trump by a Muslim American, Khizr Khan, whose soldier son was killed defending his unit in Iraq. That video should be required watching.
The main attraction, of course, was the nominee herself. Clinton gave a strong speech that ranged from passion to praise of wonkiness to humor, and made the case for steadiness and reliability as important qualities in a president.
What she didn’t do – at least, not directly – was to confront her low standing for trustworthiness, especially as it related to her unsafe and politically costly use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. But as some observers have suggested, she may have sought to deal with that issue in a roundabout way, through the many testimonials to her character and her devotion to detail and results.
Together, these conventions offered the yin and yang of 21st century American politics, and delivered to voters a choice between optimism, experience and inclusion and – not to overstate the case – fear and loathing.
We’ll know in 101 days.